The woman who fought back

21st March 1997 at 00:00
When a proper job is too much to ask Janice Ross needs no reminding that the lot of the temporary employee is not a happy one. She has been at Uddingston Grammar since September 1995, filling in for an English teaching vacancy, and has been in nine schools in five years. Yet she says she is one of the lucky ones.

"My partner has been in 30 different schools in three years and because he has not been able to accumulate the necessary time he has been unable to finish his probation," Ms Ross says.

"It is possible to be in a different school every day of the week working for five different councils. I began my career as a supply teacher, moving from one contract to another. At college, you are told that teaching is a maturation process in which you develop trust with your pupils. But, despite the hype and hope you get at college, the reality is a lot different for a whole generation of Scottish teachers.

"How can you have any trust, far less develop it, if you know you are going to be moved on? Where is the continuity in that?" Conversation with Ms Ross is dominated by money, or at least the constant threat of not having any. "Lack of security is endemic. There is no way a bank or building society will lend you anything and I would not want to take on the financial responsibility anyway. You can't plan financially and if you have any family responsibilities at all it's very draining." She lives with her partner and two children in a run-down area of Cambuslang.

Experience of the classroom has turned her into an expert on the benefits system. There was another hard lesson in January when South Lanarkshire docked four days' pay without warning after an overpayment for absence. She was, in fact, in hospital and the regulations say that temporary contract staff are entitled to only 10 days' sick pay and are not eligible for statutory sick pay during the first three days of illness.

"The council finally restored the Pounds 319 that had been deducted after accepting that they should have given me notice. I then had to negotiate repayment, which they agreed to do over four months although to begin with they wanted it in one lump sum. I had to fight every inch of the way against that decision, which diverts your energy from the job you are supposed to be doing. It is very stressful. Yet this is happening to loads of teachers on temporary contracts."

Teachers in her position also have to worry about their pensions. "Many simply do not have the faintest idea about superannuation. It is up to them to find out and if they move from one employer to another that means gathering different pay slips and keeping the superannuation people informed."

But Ms Ross and her partner have now struck a blow for their colleagues by winning an important victory at a social security appeal tribunal in January. They had run up Pounds 400 in rent arrears because of the Benefit Agency's refusal to pay him income support last summer. The renewal of temporary contracts meant that employment was effectively permanent, the agency argued.

The tribunal threw out that ruling and observed sardonically that Ms Ross's pattern of employment - 14 separate contracts since the start of her career in June 1992 - suggested her chances of work were "merely a hope" rather than an expectation. It found that she and her partner were essentially employed on a day-by-day basis and that he was entitled to income support from July 1 last year.

Financial worries dogged even their involvement with the tribunal. They prepared and presented the case themselves to avoid expense. "You still have to keep thinking of your financial situation. So my partner and I agreed that he should attend so we wouldn't both lose money for being out of school. It cost him Pounds 55 for taking the afternoon off. It's an example of how I have had to fight tooth and nail for everything I have ever got out of teaching. I can't remember when I last had a decent break. The Easter holidays last year were spent filling in and sending off forms to the Benefits Agency, the summer was spent preparing our case for the tribunal, and at Christmas I was getting ready for a job interview."

That last experience was "the straw that broke the camel's back" and persuaded her to go public with her story. The interview was for a permanent English post at Uddingston. When she finally heard from the council, it was not to say she had succeeded or failed to land the job, it was to announce a freeze on all permanent posts. "I was stunned," she recalls. "I had spent the Christmas holidays preparing for the interview, sweating it out to make sure I was ready for it. Then they turn round and say there is no job. Who decides these things? Where is the professional concern?" The insecurity and stress are constant, she says. If permanent teachers are moved to a different school because they are surplus to requirements, temporary staff have to make room for them. "You don't ever stop thinking about these things," Ms Ross says. "It's always on your mind. You can never relax. How can you do your job properly, building rapport with your classes if you are worrying whether someone is going to take your job? All your energy gets channelled into just surviving."

That means surviving the repayment of student loans as well. "I am paying off Pounds 11 a month from my time at Jordanhill and will have to keep doing so for some time yet. My partner has two loans, one from university and the other from Jordanhill. So there is the reality. You finish university or college with an enormous debt which you think is going to be lifted after you join this noble profession - and teaching is a noble profession. Instead you find yourself falling into a swamp of ever-deepening financial insecurity.

"Temporary contracts deprofessionalise teachers, both in terms of their conditions but also of their work as well. We used to talk about teacher burn-out after 20 years. I am facing burn-out after five years and, as I said, I am one of the lucky ones.

"We are ending up with a profession which has low status and low prospects, which is insecure and which has deteriorating conditions. It is got major implications for Scottish education. How can we give meaning to the fact that we are supposed to be a caring profession when we are treated so appallingly?

"It is like being a disposable nappy. After you are used, there is no comeback."

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