Councillors have agreed to increase the compensation offered to teaching assistants in a final effort to end their dispute over proposed contract changes.
Durham County Council has for a year been in consultation over plans to bring staff into line with the majority of people in similar roles at other local authorities, while ensuring fairness and equality across its own workforce.
Having failed to reach an agreement following two consultation exercises, in May councillors voted to dismiss and re-engage staff on a new contract from January 2017, with one year’s compensation for loss of earnings.
But now, in an attempt to resolve the issue without the need for that process, councillors have backed a move to increase the compensation offer, with revised terms from April 2017, and unions will ballot on whether to accept what is considered to be the best offer that can be achieved through negotiation.
Cllr Jane Brown, Durham County Council’s cabinet member for corporate services, said: “This review of our teaching assistants’ terms and conditions has been a hugely difficult process but one that we had a legal responsibility to deal with. This brings us in line with the majority of other councils who have already addressed this issue.
“The simple facts are that continuing with the existing terms and conditions is not possible due to the significant inequality and the associated financial risks of equal pay claims from other council staff.
“We take exception to the comments that we don’t care about our teaching assistants or value the important work they do. This is simply not true.
“It is also not true that this is a cost cutting exercise or one that is designed to save the us money – To clarify once and for all any savings from the move to term time contracts would be retained in school budgets and not return to the council.
“It was with a heavy heart that we agreed in May to the dismissal and re-engagement of our Teaching Assistants, following months of negotiation to try and reach a collective agreement on these changes.
“And as we have consistently demonstrated throughout, there is a real willingness to try and find a solution that avoids that process.
“We have met with trade unions at least once a week and engaged in continuous dialogue with them and that commitment culminated in our joint meeting with ACAS on 27 July and the revised final offer.
“This is – and has to be – a final offer. It is the best offer that can be negotiated, and the unions have accepted that and agreed to put this offer to teaching assistants over the next two weeks.
“I sincerely hope that the outcome of the ballot is to accept and that affected staff will see a delay in the impact of these changes by a further 15 months, meaning that the vast majority of teaching assistants should see no reduction in earnings until April 2019.
“That would buy time for schools to consider the roles and responsibilities of teaching assistants, which may in turn trigger regrading or re-evaluations on a case by case basis.”
The result of the union ballots will be known no later than September 29.
If agreement is reached, the dismissal and re-engagement process would cease immediately and the new contract variation would be applied in April 2017.
If agreement is not reached, the council’s original decision of May 2016 would continue to be implemented with notice of dismissals being issued in early October 2016, and new contracts from January next year.