Support staff get pay talks

Employers resist moves to national salary structure despite the white paper's promise of fair play. Jon Slater reports

A national pay framework for teaching assistants is likely to be introduced despite opposition from employers.

Ministers are set to open talks with support staff unions after recognising that plans to give schools greater autonomy could undercut assistants' pay and conditions and undermine school workforce reforms.

Last month's white paper promised "fair play and rewards" for support staff who are vital to the Government's attempts to remodel the school workforce and provide non-contact time for teachers.

Assistants have been asked to take on more responsibility for teaching classes to reduce the burden on teachers yet some schools pay them as little as 15p per hour extra to take lessons, The TES revealed in June.

School support staff numbers have doubled since 1997 to 269,000 and assistants typically earn about pound;13,500 per year, although higher-level assistants can earn up to pound;22,000 a year.

Unions are now pressing for formal job descriptions for support staff with minimum salaries for each post. They are also want an end to the term-time contracts. Assistants, administration staff and caretakers are often not paid during school holidays.

A working group with representatives from the Department for Education and Skills, the Training Development Agency and support staff unions will meet for the first time on December 14 and report to ministers by the end of April.

The group has been set up because increased school autonomy set out in the white paper will increase the number of support staff employed by schools rather than local authorities.

Christina McAnea, Unison's national secretary for education staff, said:

"We need a coherent and consistent approach to the way staff are treated.

That can't be about leaving it up to individual schools.

"Remodelling has to be a two-way street. Support staff have agreed to take on more work. They must be rewarded for it."

Mike Walker, operations director of the Employers' Organisation, which represents local education authorities and schools, said his members would continue to reject calls for a national pay structure.

"With teachers, the approach is to allow schools to make decisions locally - this seems to be heading in the opposite direction," he said.

Support staff unions are on a collision course with the Government over changes to pensions which would remove the right of local authority workers to retire early.

Unison, the largest support staff union, is ready to ballot its members for strike action unless a compromise is reached during talks with John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister.

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