My life at work: "Schools are going into blind panic mode. They'll take it out on us."

Submitted by Matthew on 19 August, 2010 - 11:56

Frances Streeting works as a teaching assistant in a secondary school.

Tell us a bit about the work you do.

I work with students who find it difficult to keep up with their learning. My role is to ensure that they can be included in mainstream class, helping them get their work done or at least achieve something. Teachers always say “if that teaching assistant wasn’t in my classroom, I wouldn’t be able to teach”, so we’re pretty central to the needs of students in school, in terms of their learning and their care. Some of the children we work with have got problems in their lives that I as an adult have never had to deal with or encounter on a personal level.

Do you and your workmates get the pay and conditions you deserve?

For what we do, the pay of teaching assistants is abominably low. We’re paid term-time only, which means that during the school holidays we don’t get any pay at all. Our pay is pro-rata. My contract says I’m paid £17,500 per year, but I’m actually paid far less.

Conditions for teaching assistants vary from school to school. The job can be a delight if you’ve got a good head of department, and a misery if you’ve got a bad one. You’re at the mercy of whoever’s above you. There’s a lot of bullying by management. In my union role I’ve come across a huge amount of that, particularly in primary schools. Kids aren’t stupid – they can see it. If they see adults bullying each other, they think it’s okay for them to do it.

Because of the nature of the work, it is sometimes hard to say no to certain tasks which leads to a culture of overwork. All workers end up taking work home to cope but that means they’re working for free!

How has the recent political situation, both in terms of the economic crisis and the new government, affected your work?

The new government are trying to undo a lot of New Labour’s projects in terms of inclusion, but they’re going to continue to take advantage of low-paid workers in schools. I think we’ll see a lot more teaching assistants being used as a a cheap way to do work that should be done by qualified teachers.

There’s also potentially huge job cuts. In the past there would have been guarantees that restructuring wouldn’t involve pay cuts or redundancies – now, all restructuring involves pay cuts or redundancies. As Gove’s plans come into play and after the October spending review, schools are going to be in blind panic mode and will take it out on us. They’ll either try and sack us or use us to do work that they don’t want to pay qualified teachers to do.

What do people talk about in your workplace? How easy is it to “talk politics on the job”?

It’s increasingly easy to talk politics at work. You can’t avoid it. What’s happening to education is now “big politics”; it’s not just workplace-based trade-union stuff. It’s about how we want our kids to be taught and how we want the national education system to be run. It’s a big issue. Because workers everywhere else are suffering cuts and attacks too, it’s very easy to argue basic class politics. People are realising that we have to organise together to fight back. Those are easy arguments to have now. Everybody accepts that we have to either fight back or go belly-up.

I’ve always had lots of political discussions in my workplace. My day starts in our little office where all the teaching assistants gather; we have a quick meeting with our immediate line-manager and then go into that classroom about half-an-hour later, and that slot at the start of the day is always filled with discussion with other workers about what’s going on in the news.

What are your bosses like?

They vary. But I think even the best individual manager in a given school would feel compelled to make cuts. They wouldn’t have the courage to stand up to them. One reason why we don’t have any academies in our area is that school heads have a close relationship with the LEA and have resisted the introduction of academies over the years. But if you suggest to heads or the LEA that they refuse to implement cuts, it won’t happen.

Is there a union in your workplace, and does it do a good job?

I’m in Unison; when I first started there and got elected as a rep we had about five members. We’ve had a couple of disputes since then and have got that figure up to 78. That’s almost 100% density amongst non-teaching staff so we’re in a strong position. We work closely with the NUT and they’ve always backed us up whenever we’ve been in dispute.

However, we don’t have that right across the locality. In some schools we hardly have any members. We need to build up a layer of activists who will do the work of building up union power across the area — not just in terms of recruiting, but in terms of fighting to win around issues in the workplace.

It’s not just about striking; we’ve done things like occupying a manager’s office, we’ve threatened to hold public meetings during OFSTED inspections... tactics like that help build up people’s confidence and make them realise that we can win things from our bosses. That’s how we built the union in my school and we need to replicate that elsewhere.

A big barrier is that the regional and national structures of the union are very bureaucratic. It’s hard to get the support you need. In Unison, you need the agreement of both the region and the national strike committee to get an officially-sanctioned strike, and my region just won’t back strikes. You get members who are really up for strikes but get blocked and let down by the union. Part of my role as a revolutionary in the workplace is about persuading people to join the union to change it and fight that bureaucracy. We did have a ballot for strike action once – we had to fight the region tooth-and-nail to get that sanctioned. There was a 96% vote in favour of all-out indefinite action, but the region unilaterally changed that to a two-day strike. My members were furious. We’ve got to harness that rank-and-file fury to change the way the union works.

If you could change one thing about your work, what would it be?

It’s hard to pin down one thing; really it’s about developing a whole vision of how education might be organised. I’d want to abolish exams and uniforms and turn learning into something that’s done for its own sake. We’re currently teaching people how to get through a nonsensical grading system that doesn’t relate to anything. Abolishing that would make the job a real pleasure.

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