York teaching assistants fought back tears as they spoke out against plans to tear up their contracts and slash their wages.
South Bank Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) has confirmed 43 staff working at it six schools will be sacked unless they sign new contracts which would see them only being paid during term time.
Millthorpe School staff said they had been threatened with disciplinary action for raising awareness of a public meeting, which took place at the Priory Street Centre on Thursday evening, to discuss the MAT’s proposals.
Many were too fearful to give their names for fear of repercussions, with others already looking for new jobs instead of taking pay cuts of several thousand pounds.
Julie Forgan, a Unison rep at Knavesmire Primary School, where she is a teaching assistant in the nursery, said her pay would be cut by nearly 14 per cent.
She added: “I have worked in the nursery for 19 years – the whole team have many decades of experience between us. We are qualified experts in early years.
“We do not want to be viewed as pay-as-you-go staff but as the professionals that we are.”
She liked the plans to “P&O Ferries in a primary school” and said staff were prepared to strike to protect their terms and conditions.
MAT chiefs were invited to the meeting, which was chaired by Micklegate Labour councillor Jonny Crawshaw, but did not attend. An empty chair was left out for them.
The MAT, which has said it faces “significant financial challenges”, argues the plans will correct a “disparity” whereby some more qualified TAs (level three and higher level TAs) are paid for 52 weeks of the year, whereas level one and two staff are paid for 39 weeks.
NEU district secretary Michael Kearney, himself a teacher, said: “They are paid for 52 weeks of the year, not only because it is the right thing to do because being a teaching assistant is a career – but also because they can have much more responsibility.”
Marking, preparing for lessons and work around safeguarding and child protection all come under the remit of such TAs and many work during the holidays regardless.
Unison rep Julie Toyne, who will also be affected, said: “My bills don’t stop in the school holidays – no one gives me free things in the school holidays because I’m not there.”
GMB’s Katherine Mitchell said staff had been put through “absolute hell”.
A higher level teaching assistant at Scarcroft fought back tears as she explained: “I didn’t come into this job for lots of money, but because I wanted to help children.”
A Millthorpe TA said staff there were already resorting to using food banks.
“We’re also chronically understaffed,” she said. “We cannot meet all of the needs of our highest need children all the time.
“Please don’t allow the MAT to try to gaslight you into telling you that your children won’t be affected.”
Mr Kearney said schools were already struggling to recruit TAs as they could earn more for less work at supermarkets. He said many TAs were effectively paid less than the minimum wage because they were expected to work beyond their contracted hours.
One TA at Knavesmire said there was one TA for 60 children.
“If we downed tools and walked out, it would shut in a month,” she added.
The meeting also heard that the proposals would save £100,000 – around 0.5 per cent of the MAT’s annual turnover.
Mr Kearney added: “Because it’s a private business, (trust CEO) Mark Hassack is able to walk in on £150,000 a year and tell the people who are directly responsible for looking after your children that they have to take a pay cut – people who could be on £11 an hour.”
He called for Mr Hassack to resign and for the money to go to TAs.
York Central MP Rachael Maskell sent a statement of support to the meeting. She called the proposals “morally reprehensible” during a cost of living crisis, “not least when some across the MAT are on significantly eyewatering salaries.”
Guildhall ward Green councillor Denise Craghill said the MAT’s financial situation was “no excuse”, while City of York Council’s executive member for children and education, Coun Andrew Waller, said he had asked for a meeting with Mr Hassack to make the case for staff.
A trust spokesperson said: “The proposed changes we are consulting on would bring us in line with other schools, local authorities, academies and trusts nationally.
“Whilst we appreciate the depth of feeling within the community, this is not a public consultation and therefore any opinions from a public forum will not be considered as part of the process.”