“They brought us all into the staff room and when they told us people started crying. Some ran out the room,” recalls Louise Fox, a teaching assistant from Derby.
“There were single parents who knew they’d have to leave the job they love and had been doing for years.”
Although she usually spends her time supporting deaf children, it is because of the scene she’s just described that today she was one of hundreds of school support staff who travelled from Derby to Westminster to lobby MPs over their 25% pay cut.
Derby council changed school support staff’s terms and conditions in June after they were moved onto term-time only contracts, as part of an equal pay review.
The changes mean many staff are losing a third of their pay, some up to £500 per month. The job has gone from paying around £21,000 to around £15,000 per year.
Members have already been out on strike, but have not received an acceptable offer; so today they took their cause to MPs.
A delegation of teaching assistants went inside the Houses of Parliament, and hundreds more stood on Parliament Square where they waved their flags and heard from several speakers.
UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis left the TUC conference in Brighton to join the teaching assistants on Parliament Square.
He told them that all of UNISON’s 1.3 million members were behind them and said “these cuts are happening because of the cruel squeeze on finances from Westminster, as the government continues its austerity fuelled war on public services.”
He also said that how they have been treated by their council is a disgrace.
MPs Angela Rayner, Dan Jarvis, and Dennis Skinner also came out onto the square to show their support for the Derby staff.
Meet some of the Derby school support staff
Louise has been a teaching assistant for 25 years. Since 1 June, she’s had £500 less in her pay packet because she’s had a 25% pay cut and lost the special class allowance she used to earn for working with deaf children.
“You just feel completely unvalued,” she says.
“The amount of pressure that we’ve got in our job is completely different now. I’ve been there 25 years and the role has always been varied, but nothing like what we have to do now.
“Now we’re covering classes, we’re taking groups out, and the amount of pressure and work and deadlines that is put on us is absolutely ridiculous.”
After Parween Din has paid her mortgage, she has £600 to last her and her two children for the month.
“It affects me considerably,” she says, “because I don’t work in the city that I live in, so I travel to work. And I’m a single mum so I’m finding it really really difficult.”
“It makes me feel really angry,” she adds. “I’ve given so much dedication to the children and I love the job that I do.
“I have had to cut out a lot of things; I try not to go out because I can’t afford it and my children aren’t happy about it. Other people go on holiday and I can’t because I’m struggling just to pay the bills.”
A learning mentor who has worked in her school for seven years, Karen O’Farrell gets to work at 8.30am and is usually the last one to drive her car out the car park.
“As I’m talking to you now, there is £40 in my bank account to last from now until next payday. Next payday is the 25 September.”
Karen is a single mother of a 15-year-old girl.
She says her daughter “has to have £4 a day for her bus fare to school and £1 for something to eat.
“She’s at that age where there are lots of things that she wants but she never asks me for them because she knows she can’t have them.”