When support staff struggle to earn a living wage

7th November 2014 at 00:00
Fight for basic pay gains ground but some academies resist

More than half of schools in England have now agreed to pay the living wage to support staff, figures reveal, with thousands more under pressure to follow suit.

More than 12,000 schools across the country have agreed to meet the standard after a long-running campaign by Unison. The public service union represents about 250,000 school support staff, including teaching assistants, cleaners, kitchen staff and administrative workers.

But a significant number of local authorities and academies have so far refused to sign up to the campaign, according to Jon Richards, Unison's head of education.

"As well as lifting families out of poverty, paying the living wage is proven to boost productivity and reduce staff turnover, leading to financial savings for employers," Mr Richards said. "As a result of our agreements, the living wage is fast becoming the benchmark for the minimum rate of pay in schools for both directly employed and contract staff." The union has vowed to continue its campaign until all schools have signed up.

This week the living wage, calculated as the minimum level of pay necessary to meet the basic cost of living in the UK, rose to pound;7.85 an hour or pound;9.15 in London. This is an increase on last year's figure of pound;7.65 (pound;8.80 in London) and is significantly higher than the national minimum wage of pound;6.50 for those over the age of 21.

The Church of England and the Catholic Church have agreed to pay the living wage to all staff in their schools. A number of national academy chains, including the Schools Cooperative Society, Oasis Community Learning and the Reach2 Academy Trust, have also signed up. But the majority of local authorities, along with individual academies, have proved more stubborn.

"Funding for schools has been protected," Mr Richards told TES. "While some local authorities are saying that they can pay it, some are making a choice not to pay it. Some academies are thinking that they can carry on without negotiating with us and it will be fine. We will be pursuing them."

The announcement comes at a time when tensions are already running high over pay levels for school support staff. A strike planned for this month - over a 1 per cent pay rise for local government workers, including school support staff - was averted after an improved package was tabled at the last minute by the Local Government Association. Support staff unions in the National Joint Council for local government services (NJC), including Unison, are currently consulting members about the offer.

Although many academies have agreed to honour the NJC deal for support staff, an increasing number have decided against it, opting to instead set their own pay scales. Unison intends to submit pay claims to these academies in the coming weeks, asking all schools to commit to the living wage, Mr Richards said.

"The message for academies is that just because they say they don't follow the NJC, that doesn't mean they're not going to be subject to pay discussions with us," he added. "They're going to have to get used to local pay bargaining and we'll be in there talking to them."

Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis Community Learning, which runs more than 40 academies in England, said the chain was happy to support the living wage as it reflected its belief in the "intrinsic worth of every human being".

"We are constantly striving to ensure that every one of our practices and processes tangibly reflects our ethos," he said. "By becoming a living-wage employer, we have taken a huge leap in fulfilling our aspiration."

Scott Hilton is a cleaner at Oasis Academy in Oldham. The school signed up to the living wage in September, meaning that Mr Hilton received a pay rise of almost pound;1 an hour. "The pay increase makes an enormous difference," he said. "It means I can worry a little less about bills. I've also been able to start thinking about my Christmas shopping."

Paul Barber, director of the Catholic Education Service, said the living wage was "essential in the promotion of family life in our society".

"Catholic organisations have the responsibility to promote human flourishing through the dignity of work and the living wage plays an important part in this," he added.

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