Special schools suffer in strike

18th July 2008 at 01:00
One third are disrupted as 220,000 support staff stage two-day walkout over pay
One third are disrupted as 220,000 support staff stage two-day walkout over pay

Special schools bore the brunt of a two-day strike by two support staff unions this week, with around a third affected by the action.

A survey by The TES suggested that around 350 special schools - out of a total 1,200 in England and Wales - planned to close completely and 50 more anticipated partial closure during the action on Wednesday and Thursday.

The Unison and Unite unions expected 620,000 local government workers, including 220,000 teaching assistants, dinner ladies, caretakers and other school support staff, to support the strike over pay.

The disruption in special schools came as no surprise to many: theycan have a ratio of up to three support staff and one teacher per child.

Theo Skerritt, a teaching assistant at Richard Cloudesley School in Islington, London, joined a picket on Wednesday. "I do everything from feeding the pupils one-to-one at lunchtime, to delivering aspects of the curriculum," he said. "It doesn't take many of the staff to strike for the school to have to close."

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said support staff working with special needs children in mainstream classes would have their loyalties torn between the union and the children. "Most staff in this situation will have a real tension between the needs of the child and the strike action," he said.

The TES survey indicated that, in addition to the 400 special schools, a further 2,320 primaries and 420 secondaries were closed or partially closed - far fewer than during April's National Union of Teachers strike, which affected 9,500 schools in total.

But as The TES went to press, Unison said around 40 per cent of schools, pre-schools and children's centres were closed, with severe disruption in conurbations outside London, such as Leeds, Manchester and the North East.

In Gateshead, 88 out of 89 schools were thought to be closed, and around two-thirds were shut in Cardiff. But in other areas, such as Cambridgeshire and Wokingham, it was business as usual. Unison claimed that special schools were not "disproportionately affected".

Although many schools opened without difficulty, support staff out on strike were vociferous in their calls for an improvement to their latest 2.45 per cent pay offer.

At the Golden Lane campus in Islington, which includes Richard Cloudesley School, Prior Weston Primary and a children's centre, picketers called on parents not to bring their children into the school.

Many parents expressed sympathy with the strikers, but were keen to drop off their children anyway.

One father looked visibly distressed after arriving at the campus to find the children's centre closed on Wednesday morning.

"I didn't know about this, and my wife is due to give birth today," he said as he pedalled away to look for alternative childcare.

Elsewhere, many schools managed to open their doors, but with some disruption to school meals.

At the Wordsley School in Dudley, West Midlands, on Wednesday, headteacher Mike Lambert was determined that sports day would go ahead despite the absence of catering staff. Parents were asked to make packed lunches, while sandwiches were provided for pupils entitled to free school meals. He said pupils would work until lunchtime on Thursday and then go home.

But not all schools were able to cope without key staff. Belford First School in rural Northumberland had to close yesterday because there was no one to clean the toilets.

Industrial relations experts have already expressed concerns about whether the strike can change the minds of the Local Government Employers body, which has insisted that the latest 2.45 per cent deal is their "final offer".

But some workers are pressing for a 6 per cent pay rise and want to resume action in September.

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