SOME of the lowest-paid workers in schools are being told to work longer hours or face pay cuts of up to pound;1,000 a year in a move affecting hundreds of teaching assistants.
Unions claim low-paid women are losing out on deals negotiated in response to sex discrimination claims and warn that Government reforms which rely on classroom assistants are now at risk.
They are fighting plans by Solihull and North Yorkshire councils to force classroom assistants into working longer hours or taking less pay.
Ministers say the assistants are essential because they enable teachers to focus on teaching.
The Professional Association of Teachers said hundreds of its members fear salary losses.
And the national employers' organisation admitted that new national terms and conditions for council staff covering teaching assistants, which introduce a 37-hour week, would lead to winners and losers.
At the moment, full-time teaching assistants work 32.5 hours.
Councils are negotiating their own deals on full-time pay but in Solihull and North Yorkshire, assistants must either work more or lose up to pound;1,000 a year.
Simon Nunn, public services researcher with the GMB, said: "The national deal was driven by equal pay considerations. It is ironic if part-time workers who are largely female should suffer."
David Durnell, Solihull's assistant chief executive, admitted: "Our new grading structure will leave some people better off and some not so well off."
Solihull has proposed teaching assistants are graded by their headteachers and governors into one of four salary bands.
Jan Walton, 51, a teaching assistant at Greswold primary, Solihull, said: "My head and governors are trying their best to rearrange my hours so I don't get less money, but really their hands are tied." Unison members in Solihull have agreed to ballot for industrial action, "at an appropriate time".
In North Yorkshire, where talks have been going on for more than two years, the council has suggested that the extra four-and-a-half hours necessary for a full-time wage could be done away from the classroom.
Cohn Parkin, North Yorkshire's personnel services manager (education and libraries), said: "Staff will be guaranteed non-directed time, so no one should take a pay cut.
We don't think that would be an onerous burden.
But Wendy Nichols, the North Yorkshire Unison branch secretary, said: "We have great concerns. We would prefer to stay on a 32.5-hour week at the same pay."
The Government is determined to keep clear of the row - despite promoting classroom assistants as a vital part of its reforms. A Department for Education and Skills spokesman said: "Pay and conditions for teaching assistants are best determined at local level."
It has exceeded its target of 20,000 more teaching assistants than in 1 999. There are now 25,000 teaching assistants recruited, and pound;400 million available to support them until 2004.
Christina McAnea, national education secretary at Unison, said: "The Government has to put money into pay for support staff as it is increasingly relying on them to develop its education strategy."
WHY WAGES MAY BE pound;600 LES
TEACHING assistant Helen Perkins' salary will be pound;600 a year less from April.
She's worked at Tidbury Green primary in Solihull for five years. Her pound;12,444 salary - the top rate for a learning support assistant in the borough - is protected until the end of March 2002. Then she faces a cut of more than pound;600.
Originally it was a drop of pound;3,000 for the same hours, but the gap has narrowed after two years of negotiation between unions and the council. Solihull council is proposing four pay bands for learning support assistants. Helen expects to be on band C with a top rate of pound;15,741 for a 37-hour week, 52 weeks a year. If she works at her current rate of 32.5 hours a week, 44 weeks a year, the most she can earn will be pound;11,800.
She said: "We have never sought more than we had, only the status quo. I hate the fact that I am being made to feel that someone is saying I'm not worth what they were paying me before."