School support staff are facing the "law of the jungle", union leaders have warned, after it emerged that heads in one of the country's biggest education authorities have been pushing to slash teaching assistants' pay by up to a fifth.
Until earlier this week, North Yorkshire County Council was considering a plan that would have shifted all its "advanced" and higher-level teaching assistants (HLTAs) to term-time-only contracts. The scheme also involved removing a special educational needs allowance currently paid to at least 4,600 teaching assistants. The two measures combined would have meant some staff suffering salary cuts of 16-20 per cent.
While the plans were abandoned in the face of heavy opposition, Christine Lewis, Unison's national officer for education, said that such proposals were becoming increasingly common, particularly since the "body blow" of the coalition's 2010 decision to abolish the School Support Staff Negotiating Body.
Local government employers and unions had been using the quango to devise a national pay and conditions framework. But the pay body was formally dissolved in February. "Now it is the law of the jungle," Ms Lewis said.
The North Yorkshire plan was published by the county's schools forum last month. Its report warned that 80 teaching assistant posts had been cut in the past two years and suggested that a further move to term-time-only contracts could help to avoid more redundancies.
Lower-grade teaching assistants in the county are already on term-time-only contracts.
"Pressure on budgets has forced schools to review the deployment of classroom support staff," the report said. "Significant savings can be made if staff who are paid full year but work term-time only are paid term-time only."
TES understands that there was considerable support for the plan when it was put out for wider consultation to all North Yorkshire heads. But the council has now decided that the backing is not widespread enough and is putting a stop to the controversial scheme.
"We are very glad this has been dropped," said Stella Smethurst, Unison's North Yorkshire conditions officer. "If schools pay some staff for the whole year, they should pay all staff for the whole year.
"This was just another way of cutting teaching assistants' salaries in a climate where there has been no pay rise for three years anyway. It would have created recruitment and retention problems for schools, especially where assistants are working part-time. They would wonder whether it was worth going to work at all for that kind of pay."
An HLTA at one of the county's special schools, who wished to remain anonymous, told TES: "We are highly skilled people, specially trained for this job and we work our socks off. We don't get paid a lot of money anyway and this idea has made us feel even more undervalued."
A North Yorkshire County Council spokesman said: "The proposals set out in the report to the schools forum have been the subject of a preliminary consultation with headteachers and staff representatives.
"They were not fully supported by the parties concerned and the council has therefore decided not to proceed with them."
Ms Lewis said that, nationally, term-time-only contracts are becoming increasingly common, leaving more teaching assistants in difficult financial positions.
"These staff cannot claim benefits during school holidays, so their 'term-time-only' salaries still have to cover the whole year," she said. "They might not actually be at work during school holidays, but nor are teachers."
She added that HLTAs are not given the same guaranteed non-contact time as teachers, even though many teach whole classes. This means that they are having to plan and prepare for lessons in their own time even without term-time-only contracts.
Unions argue that there has been a general downgrading of the status of school support staff since the coalition came to power in 2010. As well as the closure of the negotiating body aimed at improving pay and conditions for support staff, they point to cuts in the training budget for teaching assistants made soon after the government took office.
At the time, the Training and Development Agency for Schools - also now abolished - insisted that training would still be available for HLTAs. But cash-strapped schools or individual assistants would have to find the money to pay for it.
ROLE OF TAS
The number of teaching assistants working in schools rose from 79,000 full-time equivalents in 2000 to 208,000 by the end of 2010.
Their duties have also expanded significantly over the past decade as the school workforce agreement - designed to reduce teacher workload - led to support staff taking up the slack on everything from administration to the teaching of whole classes.
A recent study by the University of London's Institute of Education found that pupils with support from teaching assistants performed worse than those without it. But the authors said that this could be explained by poor deployment of support staff by teachers rather than the quality of the assistants.