SCHOOLS are forcing teaching assistants into a poverty trap by employing them on poorly-paid, term-time contracts, the public-service union, Unison, has warned.
It is urging heads to join its campaign for improved pay and conditions for assistants. Around 40 per cent suffer discrimination in benefits, such as income support, pensions and maternity leave, says Unison.
The union is pressing the Government and the Local Government Association to introduce a national grading and pay structure for support workers. Ministers have put forward a draft career structure, including three grades.
Christina McAnea, Unison's head of education, said: "We recognise that heads have to work within their budgets, but much of the responsibility lies with them. Some heads may not even realise the knock-on effects on pensions and benefits of term-time contracts."
A recent survey commissioned by Unison and The TES (TES, June 14) has strengthened Unison's case. It revealed that fewer than half of all assistants were on permanent, all-year contracts, while actual salaries varied between pound;7,125 in South Tyneside and pound;15,600 in Gloucestershire.
Some assistants are stuck on hourly rates of pay that are barely above the statutory minimum, and at least one London borough does not pay assistants during their half-hour lunch break.
Forty per cent of the schools surveyed do not pay assistants during all school holidays, yet they are unable to claim the Jobseeker's Allowance.
In 2001, the House of Lords ruled that term-time workers were ineligible for this form of unemployment benefit.
However, one law lord urged the Government to make new regulations, allowing the social security system to protect those whose income is below the poverty level.
The working families tax credit may also be denied to term-time workers. A claim made during a school holiday will probably fail, as applicants have to show that they work for a minimum of 16 hours every week, and the Inland Revenue does not count the holiday period as working weeks.
Unison has condemned the "class system" in education and says that all employees should be paid throughout the year. Term-time workers do not want the humiliation of being benefit-claimants during the holidays, the union insists.
"Teachers are term-time workers too, but they get 52 weeks pay and proper working conditions," said Christine Lewis of Unison's education service. "Most people would agree that assistants' pay and conditions are ludicrous."
Yet pay rates and contracts vary so much that one education authority has assistants on 18 different forms of contract, said Ms Lewis. "Sometimes the education authority is unaware that there is so much variation. Headteachers are free to employ assistants on whatever contract they choose."
Although most assistants are allowed to join a pension scheme, their holiday periods do not count towards their service record. Consequently, an assistant on a term-time contract could see her pension cut by a third (see box).
Assistants also miss out on maternity benefits, according to the Maternity Alliance. To qualify, a woman must prove 26 weeks of continuous employment by around the sixth month of her pregnancy. Anyone on a termly contract may not qualify, says Elaine Seth-Smith, the alliance's information officer. "It's yet another example of poorly-paid women doing fantastically important work, yet not being adequately protected," she said.
Ms Seth-Smith believes that many heads are also unaware that assistants on termly contracts have a right to return to their jobs after giving birth. Many headteachers are sympathetic to assistants' plight, but worried by the financial implications of improving their conditions.
"My assistants are highly skilled, valuable members of my team," one Hampshire infant school head said. "But I cannot increase their salaries further without an increase in my school budget."
Unison says it is up to heads and local authorities to lobby the Government for extra funds. It would like to see 52-week contracts, with the option of unpaid leave for assistants who do not want to work or take part in training courses while schools are closed. This is the arrangement adopted in Northern Ireland.
"We need justice for these term-time workers, who are often the lowest paid in the public sector," said Ms Lewis.
ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES
JULIE Thompson (pictured above) earns pound;11,900 a year as a learning support assistant in a Kirklees school for secondary-aged pupils with autism, thanks to a re-grading scheme championed by Unison.
She is also able to claim family credit, but her younger colleagues are less fortunate. They are not paid the childcare element of this benefit during the holidays, even though they may have to pay a retainer to their childminder or nursery.
She is also paid for attending twilight training sessions, but she is one of the lucky ones. "Very few assistants are paid for training or attending staff meetings, yet they are expected to go," she said.
Although she has worked for more than 10 years, she only has six years'
worth of pension, as holiday periods do not count. To boost her income, she has tried signing on during the summer holidays, without success. "For unskilled work like shelf-stacking, you are competing with students," she said.