On the 17th July I opened a Westminster Hall Petitions Committee debate on Teaching Assistant's Pay
You can read the transcript and watch my full contribution below.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 620264, relating to pay for teaching assistants.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Sir Mark. Some 88,410 people signed this petition, including 178 in my constituency. The Petitions Committee received 22,506 responses to its survey, of which 84% were teaching assistants and 3% were former teaching assistants. Some 5% were teachers or headteachers, while 4% were other staff who work in a school. Some 2% were close friends or family members of a teaching assistant, and 1% were parents or guardians of a school-age child.
This issue is particularly close to my heart, because before I was elected as the Member of Parliament for Gower, I was a secondary school teacher, and I have worked with dozens of teaching assistants over my career, which also included eight years working in the north-west of England in four different schools. I know at first hand how invaluable the support that they provide is in not just running a classroom, but supporting pupils to achieve their full potential. I have also seen how their roles over the years have been dismissed and devalued—the last in the list when it comes to progression and development, but the first roles to be cut when budgets are. There is an expectation of unpaid after-hours work just to fill the gaps left by schools when they are cutting budgets and when public services are being cut more broadly, and they provide key pastoral care and wellbeing support. In far too many cases, they must provide physical support when they are neither trained nor remunerated for that work.
The petition calls for the work that teaching assistants do to be reflected in their pay. Before I discuss the issue specifically, I will tell hon. Members more about the work that teaching assistants do, as it is clear that the role they play in our schools is not fully understood. In fact, the Government’s own “Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child” White Paper published in March 2022 used the phrase “teaching assistant” only twice, and it failed to mention their pay or progression. Teaching assistants take on a variety of roles, from ensuring that students have nutritious meals in school to delivering structured interventions to help pupils to progress, working and planning closely with classroom teachers and senior leaders. They play a key role in tackling inequalities and improving attainment, especially for those pupils who are falling behind, or who have additional special learning or mental health needs or behavioural issues.
Research by the Education Endowment Foundation found that teaching assistants who provide one-to-one or small, group-targeted interventions can result in pupils achieving between four and six additional months’ progress on average. A 2019 research project for the Department for Education found that senior leaders placed a high value on the capacity of teaching assistants to improve classroom management and other staff workload pressures. Those same senior managers reported that budget restraints saw teaching assistants being forced to do more and more without corresponding increases in pay.
Teaching assistants are doing that work in an increasingly challenging environment. The impact of the pandemic is still being felt strongly in schools and across communities, with the crisis in children’s mental health and wellbeing being one of the starkest reminders to us all. There has been a 77% rise in the number of children needing specialist treatment for a severe mental health crisis from April to October 2021, compared with April to October 2019; in that context, the care and attention provided by teaching assistants is more vital than ever before.
Research by the University of Portsmouth, commissioned by Unison, found that the covid period “remade” the teaching assistant role, and that the changes are likely to be long lasting. The role has become even more varied, intense and emotionally demanding, with more support being given to parents and carers, and more backfilling for specialist staff; add to that the fact that there is a desperate lack of places in specialist schools, and the role of a teaching assistant has become more and more complex. There are also many parents who wish for their child to have mainstream education and not be put in a specialist educational environment. Therefore, the role of a teaching assistant, as I have seen at first hand, is key for inclusivity in all classrooms and schools across the United Kingdom.
A Unison survey found that many teaching assistants were expected to provide medical as well as educational support. Twenty seven per cent reported providing physical therapy, 65% reported supporting pupils with toileting and soiling incidents—and that was not just in primary schools—and 7% were providing assistance with both catheters and colostomy bags. While they provide that essential support, the survey found that 48% of teaching assistants do not feel valued as a member of staff by their school. There is a real concern about the experiences of teaching assistants that we cannot ignore.
A study by the University of Roehampton found that teaching assistants were kicked, punched and spat at by pupils, with one interviewee experiencing a spinal injury and forced to take early retirement; that is not the first such case that I have heard of throughout my career. Some teaching assistants reported that violent students were given lesser sanctions for attacking them than they would receive for attacking teachers or senior managers. The prevalence of physical violence against teaching assistants, many of whom are women, risks normalising violence against women to children who are present, as well as being entirely unacceptable to classroom staff. One teaching assistant responding to the Committee’s survey said:
“The amount of children coming into mainstream schools with behavioural problems is increasing and some are very violent which is hard to cope with physically and mentally. It also has an impact on the rest of the children in the class as it disrupts their learning, and they also get very distressed. It falls on TAs to work with these children without any training. It’s unfair on staff and children as there is no support for us.”
Working in such conditions, it cannot be surprising that nearly 50% of those surveyed by Unison are actively looking for better paid work. I know from my own experience that many of the women I worked with who were teaching assistants moved on to other work or had numerous jobs. Teaching assistants are some of the lowest paid public sector workers, sitting at the bottom of local government pay scales. The majority of local authorities use the National Joint Council pay spine, and although academy trusts are not obligated to use that scale, some do. The bottom end of the NJC pay spine is lower than the living wage. The mean salary of full-time and part-time teaching assistants in state-funded schools in England from 2020 to 2021 was only £19,000. One respondent to the Committee’s survey highlighted the reality of the pay for teaching assistants:
“Poor pay is now a real concern. Due to my hours being term time only and this is pro rata over the year. I actually only bring home around £14k which is a very poor salary in today’s situation.”
The average take-home salary for a teaching assistant is £14,211.
It is an issue that depends on the person’s sex. Many women who are mothers find that working as a teaching assistant will fit in with their children and be convenient. But we do not want it to be a job of convenience; it has to be a job with pay progression that also offers the right work environment. As I said, 92% of teaching assistants are women, and the chronic undervaluing of what is perceived as women’s work has created a situation where key workers find themselves below the poverty line. Is it any wonder that, along with nearly half of teaching assistants looking for new roles with better pay, 28% are having to take on second or third jobs to make ends meet, and 43% have had to borrow money from family?
The impact of low pay is amplified by the cost of living crisis, particularly where we find ourselves today. In response to a 2022 survey by the GMB, one teaching assistant said:
“It is very stressful trying to manage bills and food costs. We now wear extra layers and use hot water bottles as we are extremely worried about finding the money to pay the bills and not get into debt.”
Members of the GMB report that they regularly pay for essential items such as food and toilet paper for their schools and pupils out of their own pockets. I saw that happening in all my teaching jobs—before covid and before I was in this place.
Only 4% of respondents to the survey agreed with the statement “my pay is keeping up with the cost of living,” because it is not. Sixty-six per cent said that they could not afford necessities for themselves each month, and 73% said they could not afford necessities for their families. This response from one teaching assistant really sums up the issue:
“We work at home unpaid to prepare resources, do research and training. We often stay late and arrive early also unpaid. I would like our pay to reflect the role we do. I am a mother of three. Myself and my husband work full time... I eat less to feed my children, I go without clothes, haircuts and non-essentials to make sure my children have all they need.”
Low wages do not only impact current teaching assistants. The disparity between these wages and other comparable work means that schools are struggling to attract and retain new teaching assistants. The Education Research, Innovation and Consultancy Unit has warned that there is a “new emergency over TA recruitment and retention”, which the Minister will be aware of. In 2020, it was reported that vacancy rates were higher for teaching assistants than for any other occupation, and 90% of teaching assistants who responded to the Committee’s survey said that they had considered leaving the role. One respondent, who is a headteacher, said:
“Teaching assistants are one of the most important resources in my school. I am losing highly skilled, trained, experienced TAs who are leaving to take up posts in supermarkets and other work which is paid better.”
That is not to undermine the value of retail work, but it does highlight the impact of low wages on retaining—as another respondent said—“amazing teaching assistants”.
Recent research by SchoolDash found that support staff vacancies are up by 85% compared with before the pandemic. Numerous other employers, from supermarkets to warehouses, are now offering variations on term-time only contracts in a direct attempt to recruit school support staff on more competitive terms than schools can offer. It should not be a competition. In addition to low pay, school support staff are cut off from career development opportunities as they are ineligible for careers programmes, scholarships and the new national professional qualifications, which currently apply only to teachers, school leaders and special educational needs co-ordinators.
The decisions we make about our education system should be driven by what is best for pupils, and teaching assistants have an enormous positive impact on their attainment and experience. Teaching assistants are proven to improve classroom behaviour, which is especially true for children who are all too often let down by mainstream education. Teaching assistants are reported to be effective at lowering exclusion rates for particular groups where they are often deployed to provide personal learning support, including pupils identified with special educational needs and disabilities, those with poor mental health, and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children. Despite that, teaching assistants are not eligible for the SEN allowance afforded to teachers. According to the Department for Education’s own review of academic evidence, 91% of primary school teachers and 75% of secondary school teachers were very or fairly confident about the positive impact of support staff on pupils’ learning, and other studies have found that teaching assistants can have a positive effect on children in their care.
Our schooling system is severely underfunded, with real-terms pay cuts, the closing of services and crumbling buildings; this is what we have to show for a decade of under-investment in the future of our children. In the long term, our education system needs a radical new approach to funding, but as a first step towards that much-needed reform I can think of no better place to start than improving the salary and recognition of teaching assistants.
I close my remarks with a quote from a teacher in response to the Committee’s survey:
“[Teaching assistants] are all too often the only reason a student will stay in school. Their nurturing nature and patience is priceless, their ability to break down work so a student can understand is phenomenal. Pay them what they deserve!”
Tonia Antoniazzi MP leads Westminster Hall debate on the definition of "sex" in the Equality Act 2010.
On Monday 12th June I opened a Westminster Hall debate relating to the definition of "sex" in the Equality Act 2010.
You can read the transcript and watch my full contribution below.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 623243 and 627984, relating to the definition of sex in the Equality Act 2010.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I am pleased to open the debate on the petitions on behalf of the Petitions Committee. One petition calls on the Government to update the Equality Act 2010 to make the characteristic of sex refer to biological sex, and the other petition calls on the Government to commit to not amending the Act’s definition of sex.
Opinions about the relationship between biological sex, gender identity and the law divide organisations, political parties, and even family and friends. Many people have told me that this is something that they are afraid to speak of, and some say it should not be discussed at all. Others have told me of how they are relieved and happy that we are finally discussing it in Parliament.
INTERVENTION FROM LAYLA MORAN MP
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way so early on. On her point about people being scared to talk about the subject, is she also aware of people like my constituents, who have written to me to say that they are scared that it is going to be talked about? Whenever such things are spoken about in Parliament, there is then a rise in hatred and violence. I thank you, Mrs Cummins, for your words about being courteous, but does the hon. Member understand the worry there is in some communities that the debate is happening, and would she urge other Members to stay compassionate and open minded?
TONIA ANTONIAZZI MP RESUMES
When the hon. Member listens to my speech, I think she will understand the compassion with which I speak. She will also understand that we are in a difficult position: we are legislators, and where there is something that needs to be addressed, as there is in these two petitions, it is down to us to stand up and make that change and have the conversation. It goes with the job, I am afraid.
Members from all parts of the House can model the respectful, adult conversations that are needed across society. We can demonstrate, here at Westminster, that we can freely express and listen to different opinions. This is a set of issues on which views are held profoundly and with good intentions. The nature of this debate means that those views differ across the House, and even within our own respective parties.
I was in education for 20 years before coming to this place. My priority has always been the wellbeing of those in my care, be they adults or children. I am afraid that asking probing and difficult questions to get through issues and problems is in my nature. I will not be cowed when looking out for my constituents, be they lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. The conversations that I get the most out of are the ones where I explore, learn and am able to disagree agreeably.
It is a mark of adult politics not to pretend that we are in perfect agreement on every issue, and Westminster Hall debates like this offer the opportunity for us to explore issues, free from the usual pressures of votes and the instructions of the Whips. This is a debate that will explore the difficult interrelationships that exist between rights, and it will mark the difficult lines between which individuals’ and collective rights are drawn. However, it is for the House to decide the way those rights are formed and how they are interpreted. We are holding this debate on behalf of individual people facing discrimination, and in support of service providers and public servants who have a deep commitment to reducing discrimination and to providing safe and welcoming environments. Our task is to make decisions on the boundary of rights and to take responsibility, rather than passing it on. We may draw different conclusions from historic debates on the legislation, but our responsibility is to make our decisions on what would be the right law to have now.
In order to prepare for the debate, the Committee Clerks arranged for me to meet the petitioners and organisations supporting these two petitions. I thank them all for their time and input. The House of Commons Library has also produced a debate pack that covers the complexity of the legal issues behind the two petitions. I am most grateful to everyone who has spoken to me, because there are two broad positions. Those who support the petition to update the Equality Act say that the law should be clear about the two sexes, and that it was never the intention of the Act to make it difficult or impossible to have sports that are for biological females only; to protect services that are for women, such as domestic violence refuges; to assure an elderly woman or a woman getting a smear test that, when she asks for a female carer or nurse, she has the right to be treated by a biological woman; to provide single-sex spaces where women are undressing and washing; for same-sex-attracted people to have opportunities to associate with each other; and for the public sector equality duty to consider the needs of women separately from those of trans women.
Kate Barker from the LGB Alliance and Julie Bindel and Tamara Burrows from the Lesbian Project, who support the clarification of the Equality Act, explained to me that the protected characteristic of sexual orientation is contingent on the definition of sex as biological, and that the Act did not intend to remove the rights of association for same-sex-attracted lesbians. I heard how, for the lesbians I met, biological sex is fundamental to understanding their rights as same-sex-attracted people, so the grey area that we have is creating ongoing problems for lesbians. If we do not say that “sex” in the Equality Act means biological sex, we may as well scrap the protection of sexual orientation. They said that the protected characteristic of gender reassignment exists. Trans people are able to hold their own separate groups under the protected characteristic and can also associate with lesbian groups already open to them; so the question posed was: why cannot lesbians organise lesbian-only spaces?
The Lesbian Project is an organisation that wants to research and study lesbian lives and survey lesbians. If trans women are included, it renders the research meaningless and pointless. This is not, I was told, about being anti-trans; it was about the bedrock of being a lesbian, and a lesbian is a female attracted to females. It was highlighted that there must be protections for trans people, but not at the expense of women’s rights. It is becoming a barrier to lesbians in coming out, which is a huge problem for them. The question for many is: should women be allowed female-only associations? Should it be easy and straightforward for women to be able to undress, shower and use a toilet in female-only spaces?
Those who want the Equality Act to stay as it is say that trans people are already using services for the opposite sex without concerns, regardless of whether they have a gender recognition certificate or not, and that not allowing them to do so would be harmful and detrimental to their human rights. It is therefore the responsibility of society and lawmakers to ensure that people are able to access opposite-sex facilities, services and sports. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Dr Finn McKay, Robin Moira White, Dr Paul Martin and Nancy Kelley for taking the time to speak to me and to explain the situation for that petition. Where this causes a problem is likely to be very rare, and a transgender person may be excluded on an individualised, case-by-case basis. Some of those arguing for no change to the Equality Act believe that trans women are women and trans men are men, and that therefore--
Some of those arguing that there should be no change to the Equality Act 2010 believe that trans women are women and trans men are men, and therefore that the protected characteristic of sex includes those who identify as the opposite sex. Some also feel that it is an attack on trans people to think or express disagreement with this belief.
In support of this petition, Nancy Kelley from Stonewall said that she is proud of the Equality Act 2010, that it works really well as “legal sex”, and that it works well to operate trans-inclusive or not spaces, and emphasised how inclusion should be the norm. Defining legal sex as observed at birth would see exclusion rather than inclusion.
I have also had the opportunity to talk to barrister Robin Moira White, who explained to me how this amendment was a blunt instrument; in fact, it was called a sledgehammer that was being presented as a simple solution. Robin told me that, to move forward, there was no need to change the law, but that there was a need for less toxicity and also that this amendment did not consider the anomalous position of a pregnant trans man.
I also spoke to Dr Finn Mackay, who told me about the impact that this change in the law would have on gender non-conforming people. Finn said that she would like to see more case studies from the Equality and Human Rights Commission on single-sex spaces, and she agreed with the Government position and said that the current rhetoric is dangerous. We also need to have better public amenities that work for all people, with inclusion as the default.
Both petitions received over 100,000 signatures, and we will all have constituents who are passionately engaged on either side, as well as service providers that say they badly need clarity about the law, and others who say the current situation is okay for them. It is important that we are having this debate today.
As well as supporters of both petitions, I spoke to the EHRC, whose job it is to protect everyone’s rights and to explain the Equality Act. The EHRC said that the law can be hard to implement—and don’t we know it? Its letter to the Minister for Women and Equalities states:
“A change to the Equality Act 2010 so that the protected characteristic of ‘sex’ means biological sex could bring clarity in a number of areas but potential ambiguity in others.”
Both the Government and the Opposition welcomed the EHRC statement that the current situation merits further consideration and exploration of possible solutions. The EHRC said that
“there is a clear need to move the public debate on issues of sex and gender to a more informed and constructive basis.”
I was told—and I know—that this issue had been bubbling away for many years and was not anything new. In 2018, the Women and Equalities Committee asked the EHRC to create statutory guidance on single-sex spaces, which it published much later, in 2022. However, the guidance placed a large onus on service providers to exclude people who are legal women. It was when this escalated in 2018 that the UK Government and the Scottish Government started talking about proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which started the debate about self ID. They said that the landscape since the Equality Act had changed significantly. There are more gender identities--
INTERVENTION FROM LLOYD RUSSEL-MOYLE
My hon. Friend is making a good and balanced speech so far. Does she recognise that when the Equality Act was being passed, the Liberal Democrat spokeswoman at that time asked our Minister from the Labour party if it was the first step to understanding self-ID and moving towards that? That was in Hansard. This issue was thought about when the Equality Act was being created, and the affirmative response was given to that question at that time.
TONIA ANTONIAZZI MP RESUMES
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution.
At the moment, there are more gender identities and more trans people who have no intention of getting gender recognition certificates. The Government also said that the situation for people who identify as non-binary is very unclear, and that a change to the legislation would provide clarity and a framework for moving forward. They said, however, that the Government would need to scrutinise how trans people would feel about the change. They also identified the following key areas of concern for the public: NHS and medical treatment, toilets, sport, sport in schools, children’s rights and women’s domestic abuse shelters.
I am talking about a way forward. It has been said that the debate needs to be more informed and constructive. Akua Reindorf said that we need some shared facts in the debate. Baroness Kishwer said that the Government should publish their proposals, and then set up a Joint Committee to look at them first and ask all the questions. She said that would be a sensible approach. She also said that she hoped people would not shoot the messenger. The EHRC provided analysis for the Government, and it is up to parliamentarians to make decisions.
I will move on to the petitioners. One of them, who wished to remain nameless, said to me:
“We want legal protections. We want the conversative government to stop using us a distraction to pull hate away from their failures. But our hopes are not confined to the Equality Act. The main struggle most trans people face is not what legal protections we are afforded post-transition, but access to the means to transition in the first place.”
Maya Forstater, who was also a petition creator, said that the reason she is now trying to clarify the law is so that the law is made clear that sex discrimination and discrimination against transgender people are two different strands of equality protection. That way, employers and service providers will be able to protect individuals against both kinds of discrimination and treat everyone with respect.
In that spirit, I am proud to open this debate. I urge my colleagues to speak openly, fearlessly, and with respect for each other and for the different experiences of people in this country who are looking to us as legislators to take responsibility. I hope that we will have a constructive debate about how the needs and interests of everyone impacted by the Equality Act should be reconciled in legislation.
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