Teaching assistants are earning the minimum wage. We need to talk about poverty pay

Academies and schools are making tortuous calculations in order to get away with paying the bare minimum - in a county where rents and house prices are astronomical.

On Wednesday, I shared a job listing I’d seen in a local newspaper on Facebook. It was for a teaching assistant’s job in one of our large Cornish academy schools – and it says a lot about poverty wages in Britain.

For a 27.92 hour working week, the advertised pay was from £9.030 per annum. Considering this is term time only, and taking holiday pay into account, my calculations make this £7.44 per hour – £7.50 at a push, if a 38-week academic year is used and holiday pay calculated pro rata.

At the time of writing, my post has been seen by over 30,000 people. 350 have reacted to or commented on it. People are obviously concerned about poverty wages in Cornwall. So am I.

Teaching assistants have huge responsibilities. They require areas of Special Educational Needs expertise, they have NVQs or even degrees, they cover classes and deliver lessons, and they often teach groups of children.

The job is advertised at 27.92 hours per week. It is fixed term until July 2018. This is the worst type of creative recruiting.  Who pays for 0.92 of an hour rather than rounding it up? This figure is calculated by paring off every part of the school day that can conceivably not be paid for (lunch, breaks), presumably to engineer an exact fit to the minimum wage. Making the post fixed until July 2018 means not paying over the summer holidays.

What it tells us is how tight funding for education has become. Schools are paying their staff the absolute minimum they can get away with. Wages are cut to the bone. The schoolcuts.org.uk website informs us that the school in question is due to suffer a drop in its budget of £880,051 by 2021. That is £780 down per pupil or, at these wages, 97 teaching assistants.

A deficit exists in national funding in education. Worryingly, the advert shows us that schools are making choices to make up the numbers using the wages of the most vulnerable.  Many of these workers are women. There is much competition for school-hours jobs that fit in with looking after children. And the rules of supply and demand mean that employers can take advantage of this by paying the barest minimum.

Some of the comments on my Facebook post stated that schools are now employing young ‘apprentice’ TAs on £3.50 per hour. Educating children is one of the most important jobs in a society. Why is it so little valued in the UK?

Poverty wages are not a problem specific to education. Wages across many sectors, particularly in Cornwall, are scraping minimum wage. A cursory glance across the rest of the jobs page this week showed at least two others with annual salaries of just over £15,000. This works out at less than £8 per hour. The Living Wage Foundation has recommended a Living Wage of £8.45 outside London. And while Cornwall Council pays the Living Wage as part of a deal reached with unions, outsourced bodies or academies don’t have to.

According to Rightmove, the average sold house price in Cornwall is £250,000. This is over 16 times that wage – and so is impossible to aspire to for many. Rents are just as bad. The average rent for a house in my home town Falmouth is £1166 per month. If you only earn £15,000 that would leave you with £84 per month to pay for everything else. There is a desperate disconnect between wages and housing costs here.

Child and working tax credits try to fill the gap and have enabled employers to pay poverty wages. But even they will be changing when Universal Credit is rolled out here between December 2017 and March 2018. The Trussell Trust say that they have to provide 73,645 more three day food parcels nationally this year than last and this looks set to worsen.

We have historically had a problem with low wages in Cornwall, and the minimum wage £7.50 rate currently only applies to over 25s: if you are between 18 and 20 you can be paid £5.40 per hour, £4.05 if you are 16-18.

Labour rightly intends to raise the minimum wage for everyone over 18 to £10 per hour, and remove the public sector 1% pay cap. But even £10 per hour would not be enough. The gap between wages and living costs in Cornwall has become so vast that we need to start thinking radically what we are going to do about it – before homelessness and poverty become endemic.

Jayne Kirkham was the Labour candidate in Truro & Falmouth in the June 2017 election and is a UNISON rep

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5 Responses to “Teaching assistants are earning the minimum wage. We need to talk about poverty pay”

  1. Dulari-leiylah markelle

    Reality throughout UK the tories have squeezed the ordinary people beyond comprehension, A labour government I believe would truly examine how to rehabilitate years of destructive tory rule
    Society needs to wake up and get behind a labour government. Without change there is little hope for the majority and the matters are very serious every aspect of our services our livelihood education wages well being food insecurity etc etc all under serious threat that’s tory rule and their grave consequences

  2. Megan Charlton

    As a TA fighting Durham County Council’s plans to slash our wages by up to 23%, I have heard many stories over the last year of TAs fighting poverty in Durham and all around the country. The role is now part of a team educating our children, it’s no longer about washing paint pots and listening to readers and it should be valued as such.
    The 27.92 hours suggests that, as in some other areas, TAs are only paid for the exact time they are in direct contact with the children. As many TAs support children with complex needs and all TAs need to know what is happening in a lesson before they can adequately support/differentiate/extend children, how can they possibly do this if there is no time to prepare or to speak to the teacher? It’s impossible. But, as with many other jobs, because the employee cares, they will put in many hours of unpaid overtime so that they can do their job properly and do their best for the pupils they work with. And this then becomes the norm, becomes accepted practice and the employer gets away with it. When we worked to rule last year (working exactly the hours we were paid for), it was impossible to do the job properly. And yet our Council constantly claims we are paid for more hours than we actually work!
    A national review of terms and conditions of Teaching Assistants based on professional standards which recognise the integral part we play in educating children is long overdue.

  3. Alasdair Macdonald

    Before I retired a few years ago I was Head Teacher of a large comprehensive (1250 pupils) in Scotland, where all public schools are still run by Councils. I was well-paid. My salary was a little over three times that of a newly qualified teacher and about 6 times (pro rata) that of the bottom of the scale ancillary staff. While I felt I had substantial responsibilities, I had some concerns about these pay ratios, particularly of ancillary staff, whom I thought were not only underpaid, but had a significant impact on the achievements of children. Had the the scheme of delegation (rules within which I had to operate) not been as they were I would have employed more.

    Recently, I was providing some advice to a parents’ group in a London Borough who were protesting against funding cuts and funding reorganisation.

    I was astounded to hear that the Head Teacher of the largest school in the borough, which had slightly fewer than the last school in which I worked was paid three times what I had been paid. I thought this was unjustifiable. It was even more egregious when I was informed that things like music and art were no longer in the curriculum. That the conditions of service of teachers were weakened. That routinely some classes were simply supervised while using on-line turtorial materials.
    It was a very test results driven approach, which is not conducive to a broad, nuanced education which develops creative, autonomous and confident individuals. Of course, ultimately, it was profit driven, this is why the HT was ludicrously overpaid.

    So, I support the campaign by ancillary staff and wish them well. The need to form alliances with parents and the teacher unions. But, I would caution care in dealing with teacher unions. I was a lifelong member and took part in industrial actions, including strikes, but, the teacher unions are primarily acting in the interests of their members, as are the nurses’ and doctors’ unions. They are single mindedly engaged in goal displacement actions to subvert schools into their own interests (.as, of course, the academy managements are doing, even more nastily and rapaviously). Trade unions are a GOOD and we need more people involved with them, but like any other organisation they need to be restrained to act more in the public interest.

    All the best!

  4. Isabel Cooke

    The fact is, our rulers don’t give a toss about the standards of education and employment in our state sector because their children go to private schools. TAs deserve a proper living wage. However, what would be really great would be enough teachers for us to have classes below 20 in the state sector – like they have in private schools! 20 or even 12, as it was in my daughter’s private first school, that she attended for a couple of terms until I could find space for her in the state sector. TAs have an important role, but at the moment, it’s as substitute for teachers, little trained and paid like less-trained shelf-stackers. Saves on teachers’ wages! Because, after all, it’s only the populace; babysit them until the state can abnegate responsibility for them – except for the few from whom it can screw uni fees.

  5. Tom

    Every TA in the school I work at has many extra responsibilities yet is struggling financially. We are all on term time only contracts for 32 hrs a week yet if we ignore a work email 2hrs after we finish we are reminded or our professional responsibilities. We all have degrees and in many cases teaching or tutoring experience. Many classes wouldn’t function without a TA yet our pay is less than those in many other less stressful jobs with fewer responsibilities

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