Support staff could be given a national pay structure by Westminster. William Stewart reports.
A national pay scale for support staff is being considered in a surprise move by the Westminster government.
Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary, said the extra duties being taken on by staff under the school workforce agreement had prompted her to look at the change, which would apply in Wales and England.
She said: "If teaching assistants and support staff are taking on more responsibility, we have to make sure they are fairly rewarded and this is something we will be thinking about."
Her comments came as a "complete surprise" to the national employers'
organisation for school teachers, which is expected to oppose any such move. At the moment classroom assistants and all other support staff are, unlike teachers, paid according to agreements between individual local authorities and schools represented by the employers. Salaries vary widely between different parts of Wales and England, from around pound;8,000 to pound;18,000, unions say.
A new grade of higher-level teaching assistant was supposed to increase pay, with locally-determined salaries expected to vary between pound;18,000 to 21,000. So far only 7,000 training places have been made available in England, and none in Wales.
Paul Elliott, head of local government at Unison Cymru, the biggest support-staff union, said members were often poorly paid on low grades that had not been reviewed for years, despite changes in responsibilities, including those arising from the workload agreement. "When it comes to upgrading, schools say the money isn't there," he said.
Last week, at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference, in Torquay, when Ms Kelly was asked if a national structure for staff was on her agenda, she said: "There is a real issue here and one that we have been thinking about a lot.
"We can, through the School Teachers' Review Body, say what teachers should be paid. Teaching assistants are in a different position. It is really a question of whether the local authority or school implements national benchmarks as to whether they receive the appropriate wage."
She said that bringing support staff into a national structure would not be a "quick fix" and would require legislation.
"We would have to see whether a consensus could be commanded across other support staff working in schools," she said.
The Secretary of State's comments also surprised the Assembly government, which issued a joint statement with the Department for Education and Skills, saying many local authorities were reviewing support-staff pay in light of the 1997 "single status" pay deal agreed with unions and local government employers.
A DfES spokesperson said: "We are looking at this but no decisions have been made."
Unison was already planning to lodge a joint national pay claim with the other support staff unions after Easter. It will be based on grades paying teaching assistants between pound;10,326 and pound;25,407 a year, depending on their job, with added London weighting.
John Richards, Unison senior national education officer, said: "This is very encouraging. It chimes with what our members have been saying. We would welcome any discussions on improving support staff pay."
A survey of the union's local branches in February showed that 83 per cent of those responding backed a national pay structure.
But Mike Walker, of the employers, said: "This is a complete surprise to us. We tried national pay rates until 1997 and they didn't work. That is why there is local pay. We hope the Secretary of State talks to us about this soon."