How can our qualifications mean so little to the council?' An army of classroom assistants across Cheshire are preparing themselves for battle over Cheshire County Council plans to change their pay and conditions.
With the county's 1,993 assistants fearing they will lose £2,000 a year under new single status proposals, Chronicle reporter MARC BAKER visited Dee Banks School in Chester where a campaign for a fairer deal is gathering pace.
NEWS of a classroom revolt against plans to change the way teaching assistants are paid stepped up a gear this week after concerned staff contacted The Chronicle to tell of their worries.
The changes come as Cheshire County Council presses for single status - an objective that will harmonise pay between blue and white collar workers.
Worst hit will be the county's 1,993 classroom assistants who are the backbone of Cheshire's classrooms as they daily take the register, collect dinner money and cover for absent teachers.
At present, Cheshire classroom assistants receive salaries in a series of scales, Scale 15 being the highest (£13,000+) and Scale 4 supposedly the lowest (£10,278), based on their experience and years of service.
But under single status, county council chiefs aim to change how classroom assistants are paid.
For example, most classroom assistants currently work 32.5 hrs a week, are classed as full-time and are paid for 52 weeks of the year.
But under the new deal, assistants say they will be classed as part-time and will be paid for 45.6 weeks of the year if they have worked for five years or more, or 44.5 weeks for five years or less.
Classroom assistants say being classed as part-time will affect their pension rates and will cost them £2,000 a year.
Among those to be hit is Karen Clark, classroom assistant and Unison rep at Dee Banks School in Sandy Lane, Chester.
Like many, Mrs Clark has witnessed how classroom assistants have been the butt of national criticism, for not helping to raise standards, but says new county council proposals will be the final straw.
Mrs Clark, 38, of Dee Hills Park, Chester, has worked at Dee Banks for 13 years and says many classroom assistants are worried about their new pay deal.
She said: 'Come and see all our job entails and then justify these wage cuts. How can our qualifications mean so little to the council?
'It has come to something when working in a supermarket pays more than educating our special needs children.
'Application forms are being filled as we speak - if you want unsettled schools, a high turnover of staff and reduced quality of teaching assistants to educate our special needs children - carry on!'
Unison this week balloted Cheshire assistants to ask whether they were happy with the new deal but the answer is expected to be a resounding 'No!' Strike action could follow.
Mrs Clark added: 'Although single status benefits a few county employees, teaching assistants will have a pay cut of £2,000 per year. We will lose our special needs allowance and our long term service increments.
'At the beginning of evaluation we were assured our wages would rise considerably. As they have only risen by £200 per month in 12 years we believed at last our qualifications were to be recognised.
'As teaching assistants of special needs children, many of us working with dedication and commitment in the same establishment for 20 years plus, we take pride in our work often working outside paid hours. We also have ongoing training to update and improve our qualifications.
'The council have already tried to implement our cuts but have been stopped by the union's negotiation so far. If this goes through it will be the final nail in the coffin. The death knell sounds for Cheshire schools.'
Mrs Clark fears special needs teachers will be worse hit by feared pay cuts, saying they encounter more stress on a daily basis because they deal with special needs pupils who have greater needs.
Her views are shared by Valerie Bridgman, a class teacher at Dee Banks.
In her letter to county council chief executive Jeremy Taylor, she says: 'As a teacher in charge of a class of nine children with profound and multiple learning difficulties at Dee Banks School, I am writing to you to register my complete disgust and amazement at the proposed plan to reduce the pay of teaching assistants by £2,000 per year.
'Six of the children in the class are cared for on a full-time basis by teaching assistants employees as a 1:1. Without them the children could not be in school.
'They have life threatening conditions - their carers are surrogate mothers and nurses. On a weekly basis there is a 999 emergency with one or other of the children, usually due to epilepsy.
'Drugs have to be administered by the carer usually within a three minute decision-making time. Two of the children owe their lives in this school year to the prompt and efficient response of their carer.
'Without exception, the carers are devoted and committed to their work. They give their time without question, often at considerable inconvenience to their personal lives.'
She added: 'Why not come to Dee Banks School, join Class P3 for a day and see the work for yourself. I am sure you will have a new insight into the jobs which you are about to devalue.'
County Hall assurances
COUNCIL chiefs at County Hall say classroom assistants will not lose any money as a result of the new pay deal, saying their salaries will be protected for three years.
The authority says pay arrangements have not yet been finalised, but worried assistants fear they will lose money once the three years is up.
Ian Callister, a spokesman for Cheshire County Council, said: 'No classroom assistants will lose money as a result of the single status process.
'Cheshire County Council has agreed special protection measures to protect the salary of classroom assistants over the next three years.
'The Government has indicated that the role of classroom assistants will change and it is likely that these changes will be accompanied by a salary review that will reflect their responsibilities.'
Ray McHale, of Unison's Cheshire branch, says the county council's statement is 'incredibly bland'.
'The county council has put its proposals to us but they are not paying enough. If we reject their offer they may try and implement it anyway. We will then ballot our members to find out whether they would support a county-wide strike.'
Cheshire County Council will hold single status talks with teaching assistants at Chester Catholic High School next Monday at 5pm.
Will you lose out under single status? Send your letters to Chronicle Newsdesk, Chronicle House, Commonhall Street, Chester, CH1 2AA. Or e-mail us via firstname.lastname@example.org