Clause 18 : Abolition of the School Support Staff Negotiating Body




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Education Bill

Bill Main Page

Report (2nd Day)

3.21 pm

Clause 18 : Abolition of the School Support Staff Negotiating Body

Amendment 55

Moved by Baroness Jones of Whitchurch

55: Clause 18, leave out Clause 18

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: My Lords, Clause 18 abolishes the School Support Staff Negotiating Body, which was set up to design a national framework of pay and conditions for support staff in maintained schools in England. Its remit was to do so by combining,

"national consistency and local flexibility",

to avoid a rigid pay structure that was not applicable to the needs of all schools.

As I reported in Grand Committee, the SSSNB has played a crucial role in preparing core documents setting out the range of non-teaching roles carried out in schools. This is an important personnel resource for employers. As we know, school support staff cover a wide range of functions and include teaching assistants, welfare support staff, specialist or technical staff and, for example, business management staff.

As colleagues from the Benches opposite acknowledged in Grand Committee, in abolishing the SSSNB now the Government are scrapping it before it has had time to deliver the job profiles that it was set up to produce and that would, in due course, reduce the bureaucratic load on schools as well as set the scene for fair employment practices and protect employers from equal value claims.

The abolition of the SSSNB is counter to the widespread support that it had from teachers, heads, governors and parents. Most employers welcomed the work being done. Many regarded it as long overdue, particularly as the job descriptions would have been recommendations and not prescriptions, and would therefore not have hindered schools or given rise to an unduly heavy administrative burden. Indeed, only last week, I received an e-mail from the Association of School and College Leaders urging me to put down an amendment to allow the SSSNB to stay.

In Grand Committee the Minister argued that to implement the scheme would have been too time-consuming for school leaders, who would have to re-evaluate their staff. On the contrary, having profiles that self-governing schools could use as benchmarks could cut the time and costs that they would otherwise have to spend creating their own job descriptions. They would be a tool for schools to use rather than a mandatory, new employment structure.

School support staff are an increasingly central feature of the education team in schools. They impact directly and indirectly on the success and achievement of schools. However, the abolition of the SSSNB is a clear signal from the Government that they do not value the contribution or status of support staff. It also sends a signal to the largely female staff carrying out these roles that they are somehow expendable and that it is okay for the gap in pay between teaching and non-teaching staff working side by side to widen while the differing levels of responsibilities narrow.

As we mentioned in Grand Committee, Ofsted argued for such an initiative. It recommended that the Government should,

"provide guidance on appropriate levels of pay and conditions for the increasingly diverse roles that have been introduced as a result of workforce reform".

The work of the SSSNB is half complete. If we are concerned about value for money, what is the point of abandoning the project half way through? We are close to having a resource that employers would find useful and that would at last go some way to recognising the crucial role that support staff increasingly play in educational achievement. I hope that noble Lords will see the sense in the SSSNB completing the work in hand and will support the amendment.

Lord Knight of Weymouth: My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Jones. This will not be a surprise to the Minister, because when I was in his office it was my job to put together this negotiating body. I take this opportunity to remind your Lordships why we felt that that was important and why we legislated to do so. We were pleased to enjoy the support of all parties at the time, which was just a couple of years ago.

First, as we have heard, support staff perform increasingly important roles in our schools. They perform their roles in the school community as caretakers, catering assistants or dinner ladies-whatever one wants to call them-in a variety of roles outside the classroom, and also, increasingly, inside the classroom as teaching assistants and higher-level teaching assistants. That latter group of support staff do some of the hardest work educationally to support those with special educational needs. They free the qualified teachers to focus on the majority. There is a fair argument to say that, at times, the deployment is the wrong way around, and perhaps the professional expertise should be used on the hardest to teach, leaving those less qualified to focus on others.

As a demonstration, I will give an example of a member of staff in a school in south Wales. Her name is Bev Evans. I refer noble Lords to my entry in the declaration of interests about my work with TSL Education. Bev was a learning support assistant in a school in Pembrokeshire. As a parent of someone with cystic fibrosis, she was asked to come onto the school support staff as a learning assistant. I can inform Members of your Lordships' House who are not aware of the status of a learning support assistant that they are normally paid around £10,000 to £14,000 per year. These are very low-paid roles in schools. As a former community artist and a parent of someone with this condition, Bev looked after one child in a brilliant way, producing materials on a daily basis so that the child could be educated in a mainstream setting alongside children of her own age who did not have the condition from which she suffered. Bev was asked to publish her materials so that the whole school could use them; then so that other schools in the authority could use them; then so that schools across South Wales could use them. She then started uploading them onto TSL's TES resources site. Now 1.2 million children have benefited from downloading resources from the learning support assistant. It is a demonstration of how much qualified teachers can value individuals doing that sort of work, motivated entirely by wanting to help children. These people deserve better recognition than will be given if this negotiating body is closed down before it has had a chance to get going.

The second reason why it was important to set it up was to protect schools and employers from equal pay claims. I am no employment lawyer and I certainly do not want to start getting into the ins and outs of equal pay claims, but schools were vulnerable if they were not acting fairly and using the job profiles that had been developed by the negotiating body. They were avoiding that risk around equal pay claims which was an important part of persuading employers to come to the negotiating body.

3.30 pm

My final point is that this is a negotiating body between employers and employee representatives from the trade unions. It is nothing that the Government should be scared of, although my guess is that they have an instinctive reaction against negotiating bodies, which is at the root of their proposal to close it down. Things will be agreed on a negotiating body only by employers and employee representatives through the trade unions agreeing them. If they are not in the interests of the schools or of the employers they will not be agreed. I cannot understand why, after the hard work that employer organisations and UNISON, GMB and Unite have done to get this thing up and running, and the time taken in both Houses a couple of years ago to set it up in statute, it is now being allowed to wither and die for very little gain.

Instead, we could be helping people like Bev, who is now happily a qualified teacher, and many thousands of people-an extra 120,000 support staff have been working in our schools over the past 10 years. There are hundreds of thousands of people working in a very unregulated way, some of whom are paid very poorly but others who are better rewarded. It is the luck of the draw as to where they live. Many of them get a salary that does not cover them during the summer holidays; they are paid only for term time. They are some of the poorest paid people in our society doing some of the most important work to support our children, and they should be protected. The negotiating body gave that protection to them and the Government should be ashamed of themselves for proposing to withdraw it.

Baroness Perry of Southwark: I hope that no one in this House would for a moment argue that the value of teaching assistants is in any way diminished by what is happening. Because we value so highly teaching assistants and the work that they do does not seem to lead directly to the need for a national negotiating body for their pay. In fact, I would have thought that because of the wide variety of work that teaching assistants perform, there is a very strong argument for their being allowed to have different terms and conditions of service and different rates of pay according to the job that their employer wants them to do. As the number of academies and free schools is increasing, employers of such people will not be subject to national negotiations. Their employers will be the immediate school in which they are working. Most teachers value the opportunity to have flexible conditions for their teaching assistants so that they can use them for a whole range of things. As the noble Lord has just said, in some cases they are highly professional and the work that they do has national recognition. Others perform much more lowly roles. That is the choice of the school, the teachers the assistants work for and the employers who employ them. I would hope very much that we would recognise the value of teaching assistants more by allowing flexibility than by any rigid national code.

Baroness Walmsley: I agree with what has been said about the importance and value of support staff. There are several such people in my own family and I know what a good and important job they do. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will agree with that when he responds. I am a little surprised that the Government are ignoring the recommendation of the ASCL. That is rather unusual. I hope that my noble friend will explain how the proposed system will be better.

Baroness Garden of Frognal: My Lords, as we said in Grand Committee, a debate about the value of the School Support Staff Negotiating Body should not be confused with a debate on the value of support staff themselves. We all agree that support staff have a vital part to play in the life of their schools. There is no disagreement on that score with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, or the noble Lord, Lord Knight. However, we do disagree, as my noble friend Lady Perry set out, over whether we should set up a new piece of control machinery to determine the pay and conditions of school support staff or whether we should stick with local decision-making by employers, local authorities and schools which best know local conditions.

Organisations representing employers of support staff, such as the Local Government Group, take the latter view. The group draws its members from across the political spectrum and is a firm supporter of the Government's decision to abolish the SSSNB. If we retain the SSSNB and act on any agreements it reaches, schools would be required to review the pay and conditions of more than half a million support staff, requiring a massive investment of time by schools. The impact assessment that accompanied the ASCL Bill suggested that this might take more than 200,000 hours of head teacher or senior leadership time alone-time that we think could be better spent on pupils and their learning.

We should also remember that for the majority of support staff working in community and voluntary controlled schools, there is already a national pay and conditions framework in place, the Green Book. This long-standing voluntary agreement negotiated by the Local Government Employers, UNISON, GMB and Unite is already used for those staff in all but three local authorities. Of course, in all schools, existing employment law ensures that individuals are treated equally with regard to their terms and conditions when assessed against their colleagues.

In Committee my noble friend Lady Walmsley asked whether the SSSNB could be allowed time to complete part of its work, believing that the results of its work would be useful if made available for schools to choose to use. In response to that and to her other point, the SSSNB process is not that flexible. The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 sets out the process that must be followed once the SSSNB has reached an agreement. That process can involve many twists and turns, allowing the Secretary of State to request the SSSNB to reconsider agreements that it has submitted to him. However, ultimately it requires the Secretary of State to make an order that is binding on schools and local authorities in respect of how they determine the pay and conditions of their support staff. It is that rigid legislation that this clause seeks to abolish.

However, we agree with my noble friends Lady Walmsley and Lady Perry that some of the materials the SSSNB has begun to develop could be a useful optional reference tool. We also know that the trade union members of the SSSNB are keen to continue to work with support staff employer organisations independently of government to complete a set of job role profiles for support staff. That is why we have already agreed to arrange for the intellectual property rights-in other words, the copyright-of all materials that are owned by the Department for Education to be reassigned to Local Government Employers. This means the materials can then be used freely by the unions and employers that made up the membership of the SSSNB.

When the Secretary of State met the three unions that represent school support staff-UNISON, Unite and GMB-on 12 October, he was able to confirm that unions, together with the other SSSNB member organisations that represent employers, already own the materials developed during the final months of the SSSNB activity. This means that they are free to work with employer organisations to finalise the job role profiles. This is the piece of work that unions and employers agree will be of most use to schools. Abolishing the SSSNB will spare schools from the burden of a wholesale review of support staff pay and allow them to keep the level of freedom they currently have in relation to support staff pay. It is right that we do all that we can to ensure that the good work that SSSNB member organisations have done so far is not wasted. On that basis I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

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