County Durham teaching assistants prepare to strike - resulting in 37 schools being closed to pupils

County Hall, Durham.
County Hall, Durham.

A walk-out by County Durham teaching assistant in a bitter dispute over pay is set to close 37 schools.

Members of Unison and ATL unions will strike after about 40% of staff affected by contract changes that will see them paid only for the hours and weeks that they work, have voted in favour of industrial action.

On Monday night, 37 of the county’s 243 schools – mainly nurseries and special schools – said they would be closed during the walkout, with 76 informing parents that particular classes would see some interruption.

A number of schools in the Johnston Press North East circulation area will be affected by full or partial closures on Tuesday or Wednesday or both.

These are Acre Rigg Infant School, Peterlee; Beamish Primary School; Deaf Hill Primary School, Trimdon; Durham Trinity School and Sports College; Howletch Lane Primary School, Peterlee; Laurel Avenue Primary School, Durham; Ludworth Primary School; Newton Hall Infants' School, Durham; Our Lady of the Rosary RCVA Primary School, Peterlee; Oxclose Nursery School, Washington; Oxclose Primary School, Washington; Pittington Primary School; Ropery Walk Primary School, Seaham; Rosemary Lane Nursery School, Seaham; Seaham Harbour Nursery; Seaham Trinity Primary School; Seaview Primary, Seaham; Shotton Primary School; St Cuthbert's RCVA Primary School, Seaham; St Godric's RCVA Primary School, Durham; St Godric's RCVA Primary School, Thornley; St Mary Magdelen RCVA Primary School, Seaham; St Mary Magdelen RCVA Primary School; St Mary's RCVA Primary School Wingate; Thornley Primary School; Westlea Primary School and Wingate Nursery School.

For more information about how individual schools will be affected, visit www.durham.gov.uk/schoolclosures

John Hewitt, the council’s corporate director for resources, said: “The education and wellbeing of our pupils is our primary concern and we know headteachers and governing

bodies have worked hard to keep schools open and minimise disruption for young people and parents.

“From the outset we have been clear that this is not a position that we want to be in, but the legal advice is unequivocal - the status quo is not an option.

“There is a real and substantial risk from costly equal pay claims which are already materialising and which use teaching assistants as the comparator – most people are not

paid for hours and weeks they don’t work – so addressing this is also an issue of fairness.

“We greatly value the work of teaching assistants and after 14 months of negotiations, including work with unions and ACAS, we made a final revised offer of two years compensation and which delayed the introduction of new terms until April 2019 - it is disappointing therefore that around 40% of TAs voted in favour of strike action.

“Though the deadline for our final offer has passed, and the offer has been withdrawn, we remain willing to talk with unions and staff should they wish to get back around the table

and discuss accepting it.”

The row started after Durham County Council became one of many local authorities to begin discussions with unions over the issue of the fairness and equality of teaching assistants pay in September 2015.

the council says is not fair that the vast majority of teaching assistants are paid for working 37 hours a week, 52 weeks a year but actually work only 32.5 hours a week and only during the 39 weeks of term-time – meaning other council staff can work up to almost six and a half weeks more, as well as more than half a day more every week, for the money they earn.

Consultations over one year’s compensation began in November 2015. Schools were also asked to offer extra hours to help mitigate any loss.

Based on the feedback a revised offer, which would have seen the new terms phased in, was consulted on from February 2016.

With no sign of agreement, and knowing the situation could not go on indefinitely, councillors in May agreed to dismiss and reengage staff on new contracts, with one year’s

compensation, from January 2017.

The council also, from June 1, began employing all new teaching assistants on the new terms. Since then the council has seen on average more than 50 applicants for every

teaching assistant role and has had no problem filling these posts.

Negotiations continued through the summer and, following a meeting between senior councillors, officers, unions and mediation service ACAS, a final offer was made of two

years compensation, with new terms to be introduced on April 1 2017.

Members of two unions, the GMB and Unite, voted by majority to accept the offer and will receive it.

Unison members voted by majority to reject the offer and it was withdrawn from them.

Other staff who were not members of a recognised negotiating union, including members of the ATL, were also given the chance to accept the offer before October 21.

Unison and ATL subsequently balloted their members for industrial action, with only around 40% of the council’s teaching assistant workforce voting to strike.

The council also states that, contrary to popular belief, for more than 95% of staff, if they work extra hours offered to them, any reduction in salary will be less than 12%.