'Final offer' to be put to teaching assistants in bid to end pay dispute

Several protests have been held outside County Hall as teaching assistants and supporters voiced concern over proposed contract changes.
Several protests have been held outside County Hall as teaching assistants and supporters voiced concern over proposed contract changes.

A new deal is to be put to councillors as they look to settle a long-running disagreement over teaching assistants' contracts.

Councillors will be asked to agree a final offer for teaching assistants (TAs) in County Durham next week.

The deal includes the establishment of a career progression board, a tailored training package and a delayed implementation date for contract changes of January 2018 with two years compensation from that date.

It is hoped the final proposal will see an end to the long-running review of the terms and conditions of TAs in the county, which was initiated to address the risk of equal pay claims.

The dispute has led to industrial action by the workers, with the support of their unions as they fought to protect wages.

The council embarked on a review of teaching assistant terms and conditions in 2015 to address an identified equal pay risk.

The equal pay risk relates to teaching assistants in County Durham schools being employed on a variety of terms and conditions of employment, generally as a consequence of the date they commenced employment but also to reflect the needs of individual schools.

The majority of teaching assistants are contracted to work 32.5 hours during term-time, but are paid for 37 hours per week whole-time, so 52 weeks of the year.

The council says the disparity with the wider workforce creates an equal pay risk that needs to addressed.

To date, more than 200 equal pay grievances have being lodged with the council in relation to this unfairness.

Following many months of discussions between the council and recognised trade unions several offers have been put to TAs over the past two years.

While they were accepted by GMB and Unite members, all have so far been rejected by Unison members.

It is now hoped that the final proposal, developed during more recent talks, will bring this complex matter to a resolution.

Councillor Jane Brown, cabinet member for social inclusion, said: “We have continued to listen carefully and I am pleased to say we now have a proposal that gives a greater understanding of some of the issues raised during negotiations, and we now hope that this will bring an end to this dispute.

“By establishing a teaching assistant career progression board and a formal training programme to support our TAs into further career opportunities we believe we have done everything conceivably possible to provide on-going support.

“Importantly the training package offered is in line with a set of professional standards for teaching assistants, which was published by trade unions in June 2016.

"We fully accept that, although there is no statutory framework for teaching assistants entering or progressing in the profession, the opportunity for well-planned training is very important.

"In addition the progression board will help support and guide career choices of teaching assistants.

“This final offer delays the implementation of the new terms and conditions until January 2018.

"The two year compensation offer will apply if this final offer is accepted and it is a joint aspiration of ourselves and trade unions that, as a result of the work of the progression board, any adverse impact on individuals will be minimised.

Councillor Olwyn Gunn, cabinet member for children and young people, said: “We believe this is a really positive outcome which offers all our teaching assistants the support and training
they asked for to help them develop their careers.

“We believe we are one of the first councils to establish a progression board that will ensure we can continue to work collaboratively to the benefit of our schools and ultimately the education of our young people.

“This review has without doubt been complex involving recognised trade unions, teaching assistant representatives and head teachers. It has resulted in clear and consistent job descriptions for all our teaching assistants which have been fairly graded, alongside structured training opportunities, which is of huge value to our education system.”

Members will consider the revised offer when council meets at County Hall at 10am on Wednesday.

The full paper can be viewed here www.durham.gov.uk/countycouncil20Sept17.