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Classroom Teaching Assistants (Cumbria)

Volume 525: debated on Wednesday 16 March 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Duddridge.)

It is nice to see so many Cumbrian MPs in the Chamber, because it demonstrates just how important this issue is. I will begin by being extremely blunt. What Cumbria county council is doing through the single status process is wrong and unfair. Classroom teaching assistants are angry, disillusioned and demoralised. I have had more than 70 teaching assistants come to my surgery recently. They feel hurt, upset and desperately worried about their future. The situation has brought some of the most caring and professional people I know out on to the streets of Cumbria. That is how important this matter is to them. Regardless of the levels and bandings they fit into, they see what is happening as grossly unfair. This is really about reducing people’s salary by a third. It applies to staff in care homes, some of whom came to see me recently, and I am told by a lady called Sarah Field that adult education teachers are in the same position, but this debate is about teaching assistants.

I recently spoke to a head teacher in west Cumbria who told me that back in 1997 the only additional resources she had had were packs of felt-tip pens. Her school had since had new classrooms, new computers, whiteboards and all sorts of modern innovations, but she said, “I’ll tell you something: the most important resource we have in schools is classroom assistants.” That is how strongly she felt about the situation.

Teaching assistants work as an integral part of the team. It is not strange or even a coincidence that Cumbrian primary schools are in the top 10% in the country; I think it is very much to do with the support staff, who are working with teaching staff and improving standards in teaching and learning. Support staff enrich the experience of pupils. Teaching assistants cannot be lumped together as their jobs vary enormously. They do a fantastic job, and some work with children with complex needs.

I wish to point out the expertise that my hon. Friend brings to this debate: he was formerly a teacher in west Cumbria. Does he agree with me and with Ofsted that the introduction of teaching assistants has made an absolutely fundamental difference to attainment levels in primary and secondary schools, not just in west Cumbria but across the country, and that the abolition of the national pay and conditions framework, the effects of which we are now seeing, will lead to a race to the bottom when it comes to pay?

I wholeheartedly agree; I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Let me read out what an assistant teacher in a special needs school has said:

“Children with complex needs have to be changed because of incontinence, and then physiotherapy is needed and leg splints applied, then hoisted onto the standers. After one hour they need taking out of their standers, tubes put in place and connected for feeding, after feeding medication is given. Children need this every day, plus hydrotherapy once a week. Children with challenging behaviour need assistance with Makaton (This uses signs, symbols and speech to help people with learning and communication difficulties to communicate.)…Children with learning difficulties need a lot of time, encouragement and resources like Makaton to enable them to achieve objectives and enjoy their lessons.

These are only a few of the duties I do with our children. I love my job, but a reduction in my wage will make it very difficult to carry on working in this school. Our children are the only reason we love to go to work”.

Is anyone going to tell me that that classroom assistant deserves the loss of a third of her salary?

If one asks the teachers and school governors what they think, they will say that the assistants do a great job and thoroughly deserve the pay that they get. They do not earn a lot; a full-time teaching assistant earns around £14,700 for a 32.5 hour week. The cuts will reduce their salary to £11,140. The council justifies the pay cuts by arguing that teaching assistants have a shorter working week and longer holidays than other staff. The council claims that teaching assistants get paid for 37 hours a week and receive 14 weeks’ paid holiday.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. Will he clarify the single status aspects of the issue? To what extent does he think that the situation is part of national law, or is Cumbria doing something different from other county councils? What might the other options have been, within the legislation?

If the previous Government’s policy had been continued, those classroom assistants would not have fallen within the single status process. That is the reality. It is not too late to change that; there are opportunities to do so. My figures are only rough but, interestingly, in Cumbria teaching assistants get something like £8.60 an hour, whereas in Lancashire they get £11-something an hour. It is not as though Cumbria has to, or is forced to, do what it is doing.

Is not one solution to make teaching assistants a sub-group for the purposes of single status, so that their job qualifications and requirements are analysed on that basis?

That is worth looking at, but inherent in what the hon. Gentleman says is the fact that he, like many other Cumbrian MPs, can find faults and flaws in the system; otherwise, he would not suggest changes to it.

I return to the point that I was making. The council’s claim is denied by the assistants. They are contracted for 32.5 hours and are paid for 32.5 hours. As for holidays, they are paid term-time only, albeit in 12 equal monthly payments. The special educational needs allowance given to teaching assistants working in those schools, doing work that I have just outlined, is being abolished. I echo Brian Lightman, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, who said:

“Working in a school is not the same as working in a county hall or local authority. These people need to have a proper set of pay and conditions that recognises what they actually do in schools.”

As my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) pointed out, I taught for about 11 years in west Cumbria, and I am the parent of children who have gone through the system, so I know the value of teaching assistants. The proposed pay cut is not just about money. It is about the standing in society that it gives to those who get little but give a lot. It is about people who are already on a low wage having that wage reduced even further, with no regard for what they do, what they contribute, or their input into our community.

Let us imagine what would happen if the Deputy Speaker suddenly announced that the wages of all of us in the House of Commons were being cut by a third, and the furore that that would create. Teaching assistants are not asking for thousands. They are not asking for bonuses. We read in the papers about the millions of pounds that bankers get in bonuses. Teaching assistants are asking to keep their wages the same as they are. That is not too much to ask. As a further insult, they do not even have the individual right of appeal. The fact that the volume of appeals is large should not be a reason to take away someone’s right to be heard.

I go back to what this says about our values. Surely these people should not be subject to a pay cut. Such an attack demoralises the very people we need to inspire our children. For my constituents, it is vital that their children—our children—are valued. That means that we value, and show that we value, the people who work with them. We do not just give them warm words; we give them a decent wage. We need to help our schools to continue to improve. To do that, we need highly motivated staff. We need to recognise the value of teaching assistants and what they give to our schools.

I plead with the Minister to do everything in his power to stop what is happening, to ask the county council to rethink its strategy, and to work with the unions and any other relevant bodies to find a satisfactory solution. My message to Cumbria county council is clear—please, stop and think again. The bottom line is this: if the process goes ahead, it will be bad for the classroom assistants, for teachers, for schools and for the children we care so much about.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) not only for calling the debate, but for being generous with his time. I shall be brief and not take advantage.

The debate is about a group of people who are already not well paid—Cumbria’s teaching assistants are the second worst paid in the country, and that is before any pay cuts. It is about justice for them and about the impact on the quality of education experienced by our children throughout Cumbria. As a parent of three children at primary school, seeing the impact that Cumbria’s teaching assistants have in supporting them in their development and learning is overwhelming. It is appalling that they are under such a threat.

The issue arises as a result of a botched rebanding under the single status process. It was not even intended as a cost-saving exercise by the county council, which makes it all the more ludicrous. It is a huge error. It is important to say that we do not necessarily object to single status as a process. We understand that there are job evaluation processes to go through, but the process was utterly flawed, and the outcome is therefore flawed.

Is not the answer, then, to define a single status which gives the right salary, the right respect and the right position to teaching assistants, rather than grading them below where they should be?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Someone without much human resources experience could see at first glance that the county council had botched the exercise by putting teaching assistants alongside talented, able, hard-working people who do a completely different job. It stands to reason that at the very least a different family needs to be created for teaching assistants to belong to. It is wrong to equate people who do teaching assistant jobs to a position that is on fixed hours.

Teaching assistants at the school my children go to in Milnthorpe are there helping with preparation at least half an hour before their working day begins. They are there afterwards if a child is in need or upset. They help with extracurricular work and child development. Crucially, from the point of view of the child, who will not differentiate, a teaching assistant is part of their teaching team. They should absolutely have a band of their own.

I want to quote a teaching assistant from Kendal in my constituency to point out the very different and intensive nature of the role that puts it beyond that of a regular fixed hourly job:

“I have been working with a child with severe autism. I support him every second of the day. He cannot be left unattended. I prepare all his activities and research different strategies to implement with him on a daily basis, often working late into the night. I have always felt valued by my school, but not now by my employer, Cumbria county council.”

That sums up the situation for many people in Cumbria.

The hon. Member for Workington rightly pointed out the issue of appeals. The county council, which is overwhelmed with appeals, says that it will look at only some of them. I am sorry, but it should either deal with them all, as a matter of justice, or get the message from the fact there are hundreds of appeals that they have got the banding badly wrong.

I understand that the Minister will probably say that that is a local government matter, but the issue is clearly about the impact on the quality of education in Cumbria due to a demoralised work force who are being deprofessionalised by a county council that has simply got this wrong. It is not too late to put this right. The lot of us here would like the Government to press the county council to think again.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who spoke convincingly about what I hope and think is a shared aim among all Cumbrian Members who want to resolve this issue. I will be brief. In February alone I was lobbied by almost 100 people in the town of Millom. I had been asked to attend a brief drop-in session at a local school, only to find myself in front of 100 people faced with life-changing alteration to their remuneration as a result of the single status process that Cumbria county council is engaged in.

I was asked to attend a similar meeting at my children’s school in Whitehaven. There were more than 200 people there, with standing room only in the school hall. Some of those people could lose around £9,000 a year, a life-changing amount of money. For some of them, who were visibly upset, that means that they will be unable to pay their mortgages. For those who are married to other teaching assistants or other people affected by the single status process, it really is a calamitous event. I hope that the Minister and the Government will take that into account.

I make no apologies for relating the issue to my constituency rather than to Cumbria as a whole, because my constituency is the single most heavily reliant upon public spending in the country, with more than 50% of all jobs, according to independent tables, relying on public spending. It goes without saying that unprecedented and arbitrary reductions in the salaries of so many of my constituents will have a significant socio-economic effect outside those immediately affected by the move.

Pay equality is something that we all wish to see. I understand that the county council is having to cut its cloth because of the cuts it has to deal with, but the winners of the process that is under way in Cumbria—even those who are seeing slight improvements in their terms and conditions—do not like what is happening to their colleagues. They do not think that it is right to rob Peter to pay Paul.

Finally, I am clearly not a spokesman for any trade union or any of those involved in the single status process, and nor am I an advocate for industrial action, particularly indiscriminate industrial action. No one ever wants to see industrial action, which is the very last resort for any professional, but I completely understand why someone facing a life-changing reduction in salary who does not have their appeal heard would feel moved towards withdrawing their labour. That is a natural human impulse. Without continuing negotiation and a fair resolution of the situation, I struggle to see what options, apart from threatening industrial action, remain open to those who are being subjected to such swingeing changes to their standards of living. As my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) said, none of us in this House would put up with it, and we should not expect our constituents to put up with it, either.

I add my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) for securing this debate, and for his generosity with his time. I will be brief, because I want the Minister to have a proper chance to respond.

I, too, attended a standing-room-only meeting of teaching assistants, at Ormsgill primary school on Friday, and the people there were absolutely united not only by the deep sense of commitment that they retain towards the children whom they care for and help teach day by day, but by the anger at the way they feel the cards have been dealt. There was such a strong feeling in that room, and it is felt unanimously by teaching assistants throughout Barrow and Furness and throughout the county.

We need to recognise that teaching assistants have brought enormous value to schools throughout the county and throughout the country over the past decade—value that is probably beyond their remuneration. The Government, pupils, parents and schools have had a brilliant deal out of teaching assistants, and that is why they find it so hard to take the fact that they face such an enormous cut, rather than a pat on the back for their work over the past decade. We all understand that the single status process is difficult, and we all understand that is probably necessary, but we all want the council to recognise that it has just got it wrong in this instance.

I shall finish with the words of a teaching assistant whose door I knocked on by chance while canvassing on Saturday, as I do every Saturday. During our conversation, she broke down in tears and said to me, “I just don’t understand how I’m going to be able to make ends meet and pay my mortgage, and I don’t understand why the work that I do every day is simply not being recognised.” I ask the Minister to reflect on what he can do to give guidance to the council, and to reflect the value that he knows teaching assistants bring throughout the country. We all urge the council to make the appeals process meaningful, not partial, and to look again properly at the whole issue, which in this instance it has just clearly got wrong.

May I congratulate the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) on securing this debate and thank him and the other Members who have spoken for the way in which they raised an issue about which people in their part of the country clearly feel very strongly. I understand that. It is classically and appropriately one of the functions of an Adjournment debate in the House to raise issues that involve strong local feeling.

As I will explain, and as the hon. Gentleman and other Members will know, the Government’s role in decisions on pay and conditions and on work force issues is limited, but I will set it out. This debate has, none the less, given them an opportunity to vent the views of their constituents, and, as someone who has served as a member of a local authority and as a school governor, including at a special school, where particular demands were placed on the staff, I recognise and completely understand the issues to which they referred.

These decisions are essentially for the county council, as they are for any other local education authority, so it is probably appropriate that I set out factually the legal position that gives rise to the situation in relation to equal pay and single status on the one hand, and to the terms and conditions of the employment of teaching assistants on the other, because obviously in the case before us the two are interlinked.

Historically, the terms and conditions on which teaching assistants and many other local government staff are employed are decided not by central Government but by local authorities. In principle, that is right and proper, because they are generally best placed to do so. As hon. Members will know, there is a well-established mechanism in place with the National Joint Council for Local Government Services and other negotiating bodies of employers, trade unions, and other work force representatives that historically deal with these matters.

It is worth putting the single status agreement, which gives rise to this, into that context. The single status agreement is a national agreement between the trade unions and local government employers. The Government welcome the greater transparency that the agreement provides. Its principle is a good one, in line with the fact that we remain committed to promoting equal pay and ending discrimination in the workplace. I do not think that the underlying principles, or the agreement itself, are an issue between any of us. The signatories, including any local authority and the relevant trade unions, commit themselves to placing the majority of their work force into a single pay and grading structure, which is generally referred to as the green book structure. That provides the harmonisation that we all want and increases transparency.

Things such as spine points, which are familiar to all those of us who have been in local government, are set by the national joint council. However, the decision on where employees are placed on the pay spine is a matter for the local authority. Although virtually all local authorities remain within the scheme, it is not compulsory; Government cannot compel authorities to be a member. Some authorities—I think only three, in fairness—have opted out in relation to areas such as school support staff. Broadly speaking, however, the scheme works satisfactorily and efficiently.

The fact that there is that need to place employees on a single scale means that local authorities need to go through a process of ensuring that equally valued work is paid an equal amount, so that they can then assess whether they are meeting their obligations under the Equality Act 2010. The implementation of the single status agreement, following several court judgments that have been pretty well publicised, has revealed some historical inequalities in pay. For that reason, authorities such as Cumbria, and many others, have carried out job evaluation exercises. Of course, the outcomes and decisions taken are individual matters for each authority, but many have gone through the process.

Does the Minister accept, though, that if the process itself is flawed, we end up with a very different result than we would if it were a proper process?

Any local authority must act properly in carrying out a process. As we have heard, an appeals process is in place. I am told—in a sense, I am relaying factual information held by my Department—that because, as has rightly been observed, there is a very high number of appeals, schools have been invited to nominate a representative for each post being appealed to attend a hearing on behalf of their colleagues. It is a little bit like a class action in the courts. That is not a decision that Government take or can impose; that is the view that has been taken.

Will the Under-Secretary take the view that it is wrong, given the volume of appeals, to decide that the majority will simply not be heard? Is not that an obvious signal that the county council has botched this grade?

It is dangerous and not helpful if I make a judgment on something to which the Department and I are not party, because I am not seized of all the evidence. However, I observe as a matter of common sense and of law that any employer who goes through a process has to meet their obligations under employment law more generally. It is probably best that Ministers do not try to advise either party about employment law, but it is a factor that everybody has to bear in mind in ensuring that any process is appropriate.

The Under-Secretary is being generous with his time and I genuinely appreciate the constructive way in which he is trying to engage with the issues. I also feel for him because he has to answer the debate. Does he agree that it might be a more elegant and effective fit if he went back to his colleagues in government, particularly the Secretary of State for Education, and asked him to reinstate the School Support Staff Negotiating Body? That abolition, which the Secretary of State for Education announced last October, has landed the process in the single status framework, where it should not be.

Of course all Ministers always take back to their colleagues matters that overlap, and that is on the record in Hansard for all to see. Let me deal with the specific point about the School Support Staff Negotiating Body. The previous Government set it up, and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education decided to bring those arrangements to an end. However, it is worth noting that that body had not reached agreement about any of the issues with which it was tasked. Its existence or non-existence therefore had no influence on the particular circumstances that were determined in Cumbria. We could have a separate debate about whether that was desirable, but the decision to discontinue the body had no impact on the pay and negotiations of the school support staff with whom we are concerned today. It is important to state that. However, the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter, and it is now on the public record.

I hope that I have been exceptionally factual. It is my duty to the House. Against that background, I hope that hon. Members will understand—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).