This piece is written by two anonymous Teaching Assistants

Aindicates when the first is writing

Bindicates the second


The closure of schools, pushed by the National Education Union (NEU) among others, was one of the first demands the British left united around, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a necessary measure to reduce the spread of the virus, particularly among families where parents have not had the luxury of ‘working from home’. This demand, however, came with a consequence for a large minority of the same unions’ members. Many of us on outsourced contracts, whether teaching assistants, supply teachers or cover supervisors, immediately lost income on 23rd March. This is an account of attempts to organise for continued pay during the pandemic from the perspective of agency-contracted teaching assistants, and of what this has taught us about the composition of the workforce, as well as the trade union we have found ourselves in. The proliferation of outsourcing in the education sector demands industrial alliances - across job roles and ‘professional’ status - which are currently not easily forged within and between the main unions agitating in schools: Unison, GMB, the NEU, and NASWUT.

Outsourcing in the public sector is nothing new. Since the 1988 Education Reform Act, private contractors have been invited into state-maintained schools, supposedly bringing with them the benefits of ‘competition.’ Just last month, the trade union United Voices of the World (UVW) won full sick pay, the London Living Wage, and safer working conditions for outsourced cleaners1 working for the MAT (multi-academy trust) Ark Academies. While private agencies have supplied labour to state-maintained schools since the 1980s, the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the consequences and cruelty of such agency contracts, and the wide gulf between the conditions of many workers who, day to day, do the same job as each other.

Nature of the Work

In March, when schools closed for coronavirus, we were working as teaching assistants (TAs), working in both academies and local government controlled primary and secondary schools. The work of a TA is various, but can roughly be divided between ‘Learning Support Assistants’ whose job is to compliment the work of a teacher with explanatory work and academic assistance, and those specialising in SEN (special educational needs), often providing 1:1 support to a particular child. In reality no-one does one or the other of these: most TAs will be expected to be able to deal with ‘behaviour’ (so the teacher can concentrate on curriculum and attainment), give English Language support to INAs (‘international new arrivals’), lead reading and literacy ‘interventions’ with smaller groups, support the well-being and pastoral care of children with ‘additional needs’ and much more.

Where our choice of job-description becomes somewhat political, is on the question of covering lessons, and ‘teaching’ without ‘QTS’ (qualified teaching status). Increasingly TAs, especially those on agency contracts, are asked to do the work of teachers, in all but name and pay. For now we will only introduce this type of role, but we will go on to explain how the agencies’ increasing attempts to market this role, this service - to both school-client and worker - is exemplary of the way in which outsourcing pits the interests of sections of the workforce, qualified or not qualified, against each other, and demands quite a serious re-thinking of industrial strategy in the unions operating in this sector.

Nature of the Contract: Why We Organised

Before we can understand the nature of a TA agency contract, it’s important to understand the nature of agency supply teacher contracts, and how they are distinct. Melanie Griffiths, an NEU activist, has traced the origins of private agency presence in the school labour market to the 1988 Education Reform Act (ERA).2 Supply teaching can include long-term cover, e.g for maternity leave, but it can also include short-term stand-ins for ill or unavailable permanent staff, otherwise known as ‘day-to-day’ supply. It’s important to understand how the necessity of short-term, readily available ‘cover’ for the functioning of a school, creates a technical structure of the workforce which lends itself easily to privatisation, and the chance for people’s labour to become a ‘service’ to be sold. Outsourcing isn’t always cheaper for the client-employer who uses it, but it does mean an easily hirable and fire-able worker. What’s happened, though, is as the education agency business has boomed, it’s branched out into an opportunity to force precarious conditions onto another section of the school workforce: teaching assistants.

ASince I started doing union work with other agency teaching assistants, I haven’t come across a single agency TA who was doing day-to-day supply work, or covering any permanent staff who were absent for any reason. To the schools who employ agency TAs, we are increasingly a permanent feature of their budgets - just an expense which can be dropped or picked up with great ease.

‘Day-to-day’ should be a contract term which only refers to genuinely day-to-day - moving between different schools covering different teachers - supply work. But our agency TA contracts are officially classed as ‘day-to-day’. It’s basically a 0 hours contract, even if they tell you you’ll be employed until at least the end of the school year.

But before we’d even become aware of the complete lack of guarantee of hours or work in our contract, what made us angry was the amount of ‘deductions’ which appeared on our payslip, slicing off large chunks of what was already barely above minimum wage. These were the first conversations about the terms of our work I had with other people I worked with. Me and the other agency teaching assistants at my school were persuaded by our agency to sign up with an umbrella company, a third ‘employer’ who would facilitate our wages, once we’d already started working. We were told this would increase our wage yet we’d also have to pay a fee to use the service. On top of this fee, we found ourselves paying employers’ national insurance - because we are classed as self-employed although we are anything but. Despite taking work expecting to be paid a wage of £60-80 a day, in actuality our umbrella company wage is an aggregate of National Minimum Wage, accrued holiday pay, and ‘additional bonuses.’ This was only exposed when we finally won furlough, and saw our furlough calculated from NMW, without payment during what would have been school holidays, but still without any ‘holiday pay’ - more on that later.

My first real awareness of the nature of my contract came on my interview day, as I was shadowing an older, and in-house, TA. She asked me whether I was with an agency, and when I said yes, told me that I should try and get out of that as soon as possible, describing our pay as ‘peanuts.’ The widespread acknowledgement and empathy towards us on agency contracts was both a blessing and a curse; most of the (especially younger) TAs had themselves been through agency contracts initially, and successfully negotiated (independently and informally) being brought in house. They gave us vital tips in how to make sure we did this before the summer holidays, (where pay would completely grind to a halt otherwise), but when it came to more serious conversations about changing the system we all agreed was horrific, it was harder to get people interested. The short-term nature of most agency TA contracts - and the attendant idea that they are a ‘stepping stone’ towards either in-house job or teacher training - means it’s very hard to come across people who have spent long enough on these contracts to seriously organise. The pandemic threw a massive spanner into the usual, quieter, plan of suffering for a few months or so, before the 6 week summer break.

What’s been most striking over the last few months is the way the real financial system which controls the terms and security of our wages is hidden by both the everyday structures of the workplace, and the organisational structures of our union. The terms of our conditions and pay are set by the agency - but unions’ bargaining agreements, and the negotiating and enforcing of pay scales are with schools and the government. We are often hired for an academic year - but academised schools, with their board of trustees and CEOs, operate on a financial year. End-of-March Pandemic met a Start-of-April Chance-to-cut-costs.

There are things to note about how the presence of agencies in the job market structures our experience of work in a way which will likely worsen as the unemployment crisis deepens. It’s not just that it makes obvious the way our service is sold but that it is presented as if the commodity isn’t our labour, but the job itself. These positions - abundant on Indeed, Total Jobs, CV Library etc, sites which the many of us out of work will be all too familiar - are presented, often, as if the agency providing them is the one providing the service, rather than the worker. The ‘graduate teaching assistant’ is particularly pernicious: positioned as a stepping stone to better horizons (teacher training), and the consequent union-backed mandate for better pay that comes with QTS. (This idea that the job itself is something of value, a service, offered by the agency has been epitomised by the way I was eventually dropped from the agency, due to being ‘unhappy with the service’, which is how they termed our meagre efforts to get paid).

So there’s two things going on with this structure: our service is something to be sold, which structures the three parties’ (school, worker, agency) interests in strange ways, and the ‘job’ is treated as a service in and of itself. It’s certainly something to be sought after: we will always be better off when we have one. What happens though, through both effects of the agency structure, is that in both instances our interests align more closely to the agency than they do the school. The agency takes a cut from our wages, and we get more from working for them than from any state provision, so it’s in both our interests and that of the private agency that we keep working. I imagine that as the unemployment crisis deepens these companies - and possibly also the internet platforms which host them - will ‘benefit’; they offer a service in a market themselves, and the more value of the thing (the ‘job’) they offer, the less they’ll have to give as a wage. It’s telling, I think, that increasingly searching on these job websites the vast majority of jobs listed are those of agencies.

This system hands power to private agencies, rather than the school system itself, to subtly shape the kind of jobs and roles offered in schools, often at odds with the terms set out in the Burgundy and Green Books3 which are supposed to dictate teaching and support staff pay and conditions respectively. This impacts not just the material conditions of the workers who do these jobs, but the way we organise industrially in our trade union. Agencies, as part of their servitised style, try and present their lowest-paid jobs to prospective employees as somewhat ‘desirable’: they apparently offer the ‘experience’ required to open the doors to something which would eventually pay you better; namely, teaching. The job is not really a job, and we’re not really workers: they want us to think that they are the ones offering something of value, masking the reality that the thing of value, and the thing really being bought and sold, is our own labour power. This leads to the advertising of positions such as ‘cover supervisor’ where the pay is little different to that of a teaching assistant, but the role includes expectations much closer to that of a teacher with QTS. When schools seek out supply teachers, it’s obvious how they might find the existence of something which offers basically the same service, but for less money, attractive. While they might fear the professional capacities of an ‘unqualified’ teacher, the terms and conditions of the contract they are committing to mean they can drop that worker at the drop of a hat.

How We Organised

AThere was only one other agency TA at the school I worked in, in the same agency. By pure coincidence I also have a friend, living in another city, working in a school on exactly the same contract, with the same agency. There was one other person at her school on the same contract with the same agency. These were the first three other people I spoke to, before we worked out what to do - and what trade union to join.

The social structure of the working day - where you have lunch and who you have lunch with - was at odds with the (industrial) alliances we would end up trying to make with supply teachers in the NEU. It was mainly TAs, on in-house contracts, who we interacted with. Most of the TAs in my school were, or had been, with Unison. We knew it made more sense to join the union where most of our colleagues were in, but there was only an NEU rep at our school. It made sense to try and join a union with a recognised presence; at this point in time, the school seemed like it should be our primary focus. I knew the NEU was calling for closures, I assumed it would be simple to summon some industrial weight to ensure jobs were protected alongside the necessary arrival of these closures.

In practise, our decisions were rushed and random. We called both the Unison and NEU local branches and while Unison told us they couldn’t even speak to us without us becoming members, our NEU district secretary spoke to me for ages and tried to get me to join the committee before I’d even joined the union, despite the NEU not currently having formal collective bargaining rights for TAs (more on this and the creation of the union later). Many people - including members of the union - aren’t aware of this caveat. Independently of our panics around pandemic-pay, I went to a general political meeting in my city about opposing police presence in schools, and befriended a teacher and NEU rep at a different school who has, for want of a better word, mentored me throughout all this and been a huge source of confidence. It’s stuff like this which affected our decision. I still don’t know if it was the best idea, joining the NEU, but we acted on impulse and with what felt easiest at the time. The whole thing felt rushed. Everyone was panicking about the pandemic and we knew we had to act fast: the one month waiting time before a union could help you warped our judgement - (we weren’t to know that it would take months, possibly will take years, to win anything) - and with Unison stressing on the phone that even in joining there may be a month before assistance, we ended up joining the NEU.

Our experience highlighted what we believe is at once the NEU’s greatest strength and weakness: the primacy of school-level organising. In a well-organised school, securing the continued pay of agency staff as normal was one of the first demands NEU reps negotiated across the country. However, as soon as the fight is pushed out of the immediacy of the workplace, along the confusingly structured national lines which agencies operate on, things are trickier.

Once we’d joined the NEU, we attempted to do everything via our workplace rep. She was initially kind and supportive, but made clear she didn’t really know what to do, largely because we were TAs, and not permanent staff. The week before school formally closed I had to stay home because of COVID-19 symptoms, and a few days later the other agency TA got ill too. Out of the classroom it became even harder to track down our rep; she never replied to our texts or emails, despite giving us her personal number in our first conversation. There was going to be a meeting of the board of trustees of the Academy trust - an occasion, I had learnt from an NEU rep at another school, was the place where decisions around lockdown and pay would be made - but neither the NEU rep or the NASWUT rep (the other main teachers’ union) replied to our emails suggesting we hold a cross-union meeting, or make some demands to the board of trustees. I’ll never know whether either rep attended this meeting or made any demands of it; neither ever replied to us. The day after this meeting, the other agency TA (still in school) had a meeting with our headteacher, while I was already off sick. He made it very clear the decision had already been made and there was nothing we could do about it. Noone even bothered to inform me of this, just knowing I’d be told by my fellow agency TA, and my line manager didn’t reply to any of my emails asking what was happening. I had to call the headteacher to ask for his confirmation.

The phone call really illuminated some of the mess of conflicting interests that the agency system creates between the worker, and the person they experience (and who does still ultimately hold hiring and firing power) as their boss, and the agency itself. The headteacher blamed the system, the parasitical agencies, with their ‘millions’ he suspected: they were the ones exploiting us and the ones with the means to pay us. He, on the other hand, was a leader with a social responsibility for the children. He cited proposed government cuts to free school meals - the conversation was tense and fast-paced and he never elaborated, but I assume he meant the impact this policy4 would have had on the primary school within the academy trust - as a reason why he could no longer pay us. He talked about how the extra fees the agency took for their profit meant we were simply too expensive.

This is what outsourcing does: by commodifying labour into a service for employers to purchase, or temporarily rent more accurately, from an external company, our interests as outsourced workers can align with the agencies whose existence is the reason we’re being exploited. It’s in their interests, too, that we keep working (and keep receiving our wage): this means they’re still able to sell their product. Where I think our strategy ultimately failed, (although we have been successful in demanding basic sustenance off of the umbrella company who our agency outsources its payrolling service to), is taking the fight away from the workplace all too quickly. The UVW’s recent dispute at an academy school in London, over the pay and conditions of outsourced cleaners, while propagandising around the outsourcing company’s bad practise, focussed its leverage on the ultimate responsibility of the school. It’s almost as if we need to sort of pre-figuratively imagine who our ‘legal’ employer should be in accordance with the reality of the work, and focus attention there, rather than negotiating with the agency or umbrella company, posing as our employer, who shouldn’t really exist.

Another experience of organising

Here we move into a joint discussion comparing experiences of organising Teaching Assistants. After speaking together, A advised B to get in contact with her District Secretary to lay out her concerns.

BThe advice from the union was to go directly to the school and ask them to continue my pay in line with the Joint Union Advice (issued alongside NAHT and ASCL who represent most headteachers) which said:

All supply teachers must be fairly treated– kept in post, supported if unable to work and employed as a key part of local authorities’ response to this crisis. The Department for Education (DfE) has made it clear that the additional costs schools incur as a result of managing this crisis will be reimbursed. As unions, we are currently in discussions with the Government about how this will work.

On this basis, my District Secretary was clear that I should be retained and paid after Easter as this would have been the case if it weren’t for the pandemic and that I should contact my Union Representative in my school. Following this my District Secretary emphasised that schools in my authority should not be furloughing supply staff and all we can do is to act collectively in response.

With all my correspondence with my District Secretary, they referred to “supply staff/teachers”. This false equivalence between “supply staff” and “agency staff” further showed how little agency TAs were acknowledged by the union and that the union wasn’t fully equipped to support them. Before I’d even taken any action, my District Secretary was fairly pessimistic, stating the difficulty of organising union members in my school, saying it would be difficult to write a letter to the Chair of Governors asking them to honour all agency staff employments as there was a small and inactive membership.

Whilst pointing me towards my Representative in the school, he emphasised how they were also “not terribly active.” This left me feeling deflated, as an agency TA I didn’t have a school email, so once schools shut and I was pushed out of the workplace I could also no longer have in-person chats. I needed help from the District to even get in contact with the rep. Little advice was given, so with no way of contacting my Rep and no clear idea of what to do, we didn’t organise on the school level.

At this point with no scheduled pay, it seemed that the agency was the best way to seek furlough payment. Arguably, this was our biggest mistake when organising. We should have done more on the school level but at the time it seemed impossible with no contacts in school, little support from the union and the inability to “act collectively” with no collective bargaining rights for Teaching Assistants in NEU.

AI remember a friend saying to me when Rishi Sunak announced the Job Retention Scheme that this could potentially take the heat off the bosses and neuter trade union militancy. At the time this pissed me off: I was waiting for Universal Credit and trying to navigate the labyrinthine process of getting Statutory Sick Pay off my umbrella company, and something like this seemed an easy way out to paying me and others in my situation. Looking back, it’s pretty clear that, at least in our case, the policy quite literally encouraged an affirmation and reproduction of things as they were. Whereas the militancy of outsourced workers can be transformative- by acting out a relation to the boss which echoes the reality of the workplace, rather than the arbitrary exploitation of contracts - we began to be engaged in a process of lobbying for bail-outs for a boss who shouldn’t really be our boss, to retain a job we couldn’t retain.

I should be clear: we never fully gave up on attempting to negotiate for the extension of our contract with the school, and my colleague was eventually successful (months later) in using AWR (Agency Workers’ Regulations) legislation to get the school to continue to pay her, albeit at 80% of her wages. But after the headteacher’s call, and our district secretary’s seeming inability to push the headteacher using AWR legislation, we felt somewhat unmoored from any obvious, localised paths of action. We had 4 of us across two schools (all completely inexperienced in any kind of trade union activity), the agency which tied us together, and the union. We were weak both in terms of numbers, and in some kind of institutional representation. My next steps were an attempt to remedy both of these: learn as much about the NEU as I could and speak to anyone who would listen, and find more agency teaching assistants. After probably annoying too many union people, we learnt that the NEU’s ‘supply network forum’ was where we were supposed to be. I would later learn that this institution has no formal democratic powers and faces its own crisis of representation within the union - but more on that later.

My method had two main tracks: go via NEU (the branch, officials, and pestering any teacher I knew to look out for agency teaching assistants) and joining lots of general teaching assistant facebook groups, searching the words ‘agency,’ or ‘umbrella company,’ and slowly talking to everyone mentioning it, adding them, and getting them in a whatsapp group. I had a lot more success with the second tactic than the first. In the first couple of weeks I set out to call every number I got.

It was easy getting people on side politically, but much harder organisationally. It’s obvious why things were bad: people felt humiliated by the ease with which they were dropped from school pay-rolls, and the ways in which the agencies relied specifically on someone (a school) wanting to buy our labour power became clear. People I spoke to in multi-sector agencies were offered care work before they were offered furlough: they knew that the agencies would make more profit from them continuing to work. This was always more tempting to the agencies than even the unprecedented government bail-out in the form of the furlough scheme. It was harder to convince people that we’d be better off doing something via the union, and I’ll admit I wasn’t exactly sure we would be myself. Quite a few people joined the union. In the main, people had difficulty garnering support from their local branches. Often a TA might be the only agency TA in a single school. While I do think it made sense to seek out a bloc with a shared industrial position, the very system which had caused our loss of income scattered us across workplaces and regions, and across the union structures and bargaining agreements which come with them. Ultimately, any real success would have come (and did come, as we’ve mentioned previously, in well-organised schools) at the level of the workplace.

The WhatsApp group has mainly operated as a support system, sharing email templates and resources to lobby agencies and umbrella companies, informing each other of rights that we have, and assisting each other with universal credit applications.

My investigation into the structures of the NEU took me to the ‘NEU Supply Teachers’ Network’, a facebook group which loosely organises alongside the National Organising Forum (OF) for supply teachers, with elected delegates from each of the unions 5 geographical regions. It was made very clear to us that, following the NEU’s creation in 2017 and consequent acceptance of support staff members, all agency support staff were welcome and should feel represented in the section. The network, autonomous and independent of the union, operates somewhat distinctively from the OF. It took me a long time to understand that neither structure has official power within the union, or how meetings took place. I accidentally called the first meeting of the network (not the OF) on zoom, and ended up chairing it. The network has almost tripled in size since I joined, and has gone through surges of extreme (and justifiable) anger from the membership. It’s predominantly served as a communication network for self-education among members along the various stages of our interaction with furlough legislation. Through a lot of lockdown I was, in a way, taking ‘lines’ from the network on what to do next, and communicating this back to the WhatsApp group I’d created. It felt reactive. During the two months between school closures and when nearly all affected outsourced educators received furlough payments, there were quite a few points where the membership of the facebook group was talking about, and ‘facebook polling’ about, industrial action and boycotts. I remember a phone call with the OF rep for my region where I suggested a plan to encourage supply educators to commit to (in future) refusing to work with agencies which didn’t furlough their staff, the only way it seemed we might be able to leverage anything while on Universal Credit. He liked the idea, TAs in the whatsapp group liked the idea: it was completely unclear how we were supposed to democratically decide anything like this. Possibly we should have just ran with stuff, I don’t know. More recently as this rearguard action moves to attempting to lobby agencies to continue furlough til September, there is serious disgruntlement with the union, and more specifically the lack of serious democratic representation of supply members in the union.

As well as this whatsapp group where we sought to form a political alliance between those of us wholly underrepresented in both our workplaces and the various unions nominated to operate in them, the four of us who shared an agency took matters into our own hands and sought to win ourselves furlough money.

BOur strategy when demanding furlough from our agency and umbrella company was sending collective emails with concise questions and clear demands that we thought could not be dodged. From school closures until the start of May, we were in a back and forth with both the agency and the umbrella company, initially simply asking for clarity. For instance, when I asked why my Basic Pay was £7.70 an hour, when I had signed a contract which was for a Daily Rate of £70, they directed me to HMRC and told me my tax code had changed and this had changed my pay breakdown. My change in tax code has nothing to do with my basic pay. Throughout this time we demanded clarity and transparency; neither were given. They would attempt to hold all conversations on the phone with individuals rather than replying to our collective emails, so there was no paper trail. They would emphasise how, along with their lawyers, they were trying to disentangle the government guidelines concerning the Job Retention scheme, referring to a “grey area”. From the government guidance we quoted to them, it seemed pretty clear that we, as agency workers, paid through a PAYE, were eligible to be furloughed and receive support through this scheme.5 Even the FCSA, the board which governs Umbrella Companies, had called on the government to say that it is unacceptable for all agency employees to be furloughed at 80% of their basic pay, not their actual wage.

As we waited for the Government Portal to open, it became evident there were two key issues: for us it was whether we would be paid 80% of National Minimum Wage, for the umbrella company it was whether they would need to pay us holiday pay. We were told, “if HMRC continue to be of the opinion that holiday pay accrues as normal, then this will have extreme consequences for any payroll scheme. This could potentially leave payroll and Umbrella companies with a huge bill, that could well lead to insolvency, as the potential liabilities are significant. Naturally this would not be to any of our interest if companies were to be forced to close due to their incorrect strategy.” The primary concern of the umbrella company was keeping themselves afloat - a corporation which quite literally profits from paying outsourced workers but hasn’t factored in paying workers adequately.

Yet when my concerns about the working practices were communicated to my District Secretary, their advice was to “find a new agency”, find alternative employment, find in-house employment where the union can represent you. There was little motivation to make the agencies and the umbrella companies accountable for the countless dismal working practices, instead we were told to move away and the next cohort of unemployed graduates could take our place. When we finally had confirmation from the umbrella company that we were furloughed, we were sent a furlough agreement that we needed to sign and return before the 1st of May or face not being furloughed at all.

Aat this point, some of our more militant comrades in the NEU advised us to refuse to sign, until it was confirmed we’d get 80% of our actual wages. We knew we had no leverage, though. Even if we’d been more than just 4 of us (spread across the country), without the threat of a strike, we had no real power to make any demands.

BDespite all our efforts, it looked as if the agreement was to be furloughed at 80% of National Minimum Wage for hours that didn’t reflect our working days. Prior to the pandemic I was working 35 hours a week, but my furlough was for 29.68 hours a week. When asking my District Secretary for advice concerning this situation, they told me I had little choice but to agree or presumably the alternative was to be paid nothing. Worryingly, he reassured me that schools are likely to re-open after half-term (June 2020) and I could find further work. This went against the union’s position, which held it was not safe to open schools. He was encouraging agency staff to go against this, undermining their own safety and that of the children, their families and the whole community, just to get adequate payment, whilst permanent staff quite rightly were campaigning for schools to remain closed to prevent the further spread of the virus. In some ways, the union saw any furlough payment as a victory, not a point from which to inspire further action. My interaction with the agency, umbrella company and union at this point left me feeling helpless. I did go on to sign the furlough agreement in order to receive the very small sum of money which was closer to 50% of my wages opposed to 80% and continued to receive Universal Credit.

There were a number of obstacles to working collectively, on a union level and between the agency TAs. As well as problems with the union, what struck me was the division between the individuals who were situated similarly as agency TAs. As a result of the individualised contracts and isolated nature of our work, we are incentivised to act alone and not form solidarity with others. The other agency TA in my school lived closer and was working in the school for key workers throughout the lockdown. She had been there for a year longer than myself. We were on paper in a very similar situation and at the start it seemed hopeful to have someone in the same workplace on the same contract. This quickly broke-down once favourable treatment was received. She was in the school working and saw it as a blessing to be able to go back to work with the school reopening, and my continuing struggle with sub-par furlough was left behind. For her, she was more concerned with upholding relationships with the same school staff instead of making sure we got the wages we deserved.

AMore recently, via some good luck and coincidence, we’ve managed to get contacts to expand the small group beyond our single agency. We’ve had two online meetings so far, and plan to use this group to collectivise our grievances, and act on our shared belief that we’ve been seriously underpaid, even below the pay cut which comes with an 80% furlough package. On average, between us, we’re currently getting around £35 a day from furlough. A 7 hour day on minimum wage (considering most of us with this agency are under 25 years of age) is £57.40. Aside from the fact that our original wage was higher than this, what we’ve been getting since March is 60%, not 80%, of national minimum wage. I don’t have to explain why we’re angry. How we interact with the union as this new group, however, remains to be seen.

The Union

ASo far I’ve managed to basically skirt around what’s possibly one of the biggest, and most confusing, aspects to our efforts the last few months: what are we doing in the NEU? What is the position of support staff in the NEU? How does the agency system undermine the distinctions between sections of the workforce, (and most worryingly the collective bargaining agreements associated with them)?

The National Education Union formed out of a merger of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Alliance of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) in March 2017, following a ballot of the membership of both these unions respectively, and then a joint special conference. The ATL included membership of some teaching assistants and support staff, thus bringing them into a shared union with teachers, and creating a sort of proto-industrial union for the sector. In reality, although the NEU’s website6 writes that it ‘welcomes into membership all professionals working in the education sector: teachers, teaching assistants, examination officers, technicians, librarians, lecturers, managers, administrators and ancillary staff’, its ability to function as an industrial union is severely limited by an agreement with Unison, Unite and GMB shaping the terms of the new union’s creation.7 The substance of the agreement rests on the distinction between ‘support staff’ and ‘teachers’, and collective bargaining agreements confined to different unions respectively, operating on the local and national levels. I hope to make the argument that this distinction in role-based collective bargaining agreements is severely threatened by outsourcing and agency work, and is not currently fit to respond to these assaults.

As I’ve previously discussed, the prevalence of agencies offering roles to ‘unqualified teachers’, well below QTS pay grades, is of chief concern to supply teachers within the NEU. At points, in the ‘NEU Supply Teacher Network’ Facebook group, this has veered into outright hostility and condescension towards the workers who take these jobs, or to the TAs who are increasingly asked to ‘teach’ by management. We’ve been called ‘phoney teachers’, with suggestions that NEU members should operate a ‘closed shop approach’ and ‘refuse to work’ with this section of the workforce - this obviously isn’t what ‘closed shop’ actually means. I’ve seen comments laughing about how stupid TAs are, how we can’t do simple maths. These comments are by no means majoritarian opinions within the union or the network, and I don’t want to give the impression we’ve been treated badly. But these comments don’t come from simple cruelty or out of nowhere: I’d argue they’re the troubling consequence of craft unionism under hardship. The material experience of supply teachers is one which has seen their wages massively eroded, in a large part due to the existence of these contracts. If they remain part of a union and a strategy which seeks to advance their professional interests in isolation from - and, to some extent - in opposition to the workers taking these jobs, no wonder these kinds of ideas emerge.

The thing is, we - particularly ‘graduate teaching assistants’ floating in on short-term, precarious contracts - are actually, in effect, a form of scab labour, in the sense that in so far as we aren’t unionised, and aren’t in formal, democratic alliances with supply teachers and in-house teachers and TAs (with shared collective bargaining possibilities), we are a problem for the rest of the membership. It’s for this reason that supply teachers’ discomfort makes sense, where comments asking that ‘union members refuse to work with these phoney teachers’ come from, but the conclusions drawn are not only morally wrong, but strategically dangerous for the very supply teachers who make them. Only by unionising (industrially and with equal representation) those workers brought in, via agencies, to undermine teachers’ previously won stringent pay scales and conditions, will those rights ever be upheld, and collectivised to workers beyond the limited fraction of ‘qualified teachers.’

As it stands, the union’s main weapon which it can use to uphold the proper pay of supply teacher’s on agency contracts, is the pay scale category assigned to the teacher based on their qualification and experience. This is resulting in a failing - and increasingly divisive - strategy. Supply teachers will talk about being too ‘expensive’ for schools today. The higher the pay grade of the teacher, the more incentive there is for the school to seek to hire a greater proportion of ‘unqualified’ cover supervisors. The continued assertion of these ‘rights’ of a section of the workforce is only going to help exacerbate the economic and political divide between sections of the workforce: the divide in wages further incentivises the client (the school) to employ cheaper labour, and the political divide, the failure of a union and collective bargaining system to unite all those who share an employer (be that a school or an agency), only worsens the already limited leverage power the union of teachers already holds.

And then we come to the realities of the current bargaining agreements for education workers, be they teachers, TAs, cleaners, caterers, cover supervisors, or something in between. The TUC agreement between Unison, GMB, Unite, and the NEU contains this line:

The National Education Union accepts that the GMB, UNISON and Unite are the only unions recognised for collective bargaining purposes within the NJC for Local Government Services. GMB, UNISON and Unite accept that the National Education Union is recognised for collective bargaining for education staff on Soulbury terms and conditions and for Teachers in Residential Establishments.

The thing is, agency TAs aren’t bargained for within the NJC, and agency supply teachers aren’t bargained for within the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB). Both groups can only, reactively, use AWR legislation to argue they be paid to scale, at the same rates as their in-house colleagues doing the same work, after 12 weeks of work.

Supply teachers very much face their own crisis of representation in the union, even if it’s not as obvious as that of support staff. Recently, supply teachers organising within the NEU ‘supply teachers network’ have sought to get a review of the effectiveness of the democratic structures for supply and agency members, from the Union’s leadership, after the pandemic has shed light on the structural barriers to our organising. This has, so far, been rejected, and individual activists are currently being targeted for ‘bringing the union into disrepute’, among other charges.

By the same logic that without working with those of us whose contracts are specifically designed to undermine the terms and conditions of supply teachers, supply teachers will struggle to advance their own interests, permanent staff in the union should take extremely seriously the disgruntlement of the hundreds of thousands of members in their own union whose loss of pay in the pandemic is only the tip of decades of precarity and exploitation. An industrial unionism isn’t merely a formal category, it should be a political outlook which seeks to organise the most precarious of not just the current membership of a union, but of the sectoral workforce (often the non-members are those who most need to be members), and ultimately looking towards the most precarious of the whole class. UVW’s recent victory for outsourced cleaners in Ark Academies has been celebrated by a lot of NEU activists - but it should also wake them up. The NEU and the ‘support staff’ unions can all, according to their websites, represent these cleaners. Why haven’t they? The reality of the political economy of schools today - how they are funded, who labours for their functioning, how we are all paid - demands serious re-thinking of our industrial strategy.









Two anonymous Teaching Assistants

Two anonymous authors who both work as agency Teaching Assistants.