An impressive movement is building in the county of Durham in the UK by teaching assistants who are facing the brunt of vicious cuts in the education budget. The teaching assistants' pay, which is already some of the lowest in the country, will be cut by up to 23% if the Labour council's plans go ahead. The council is planning to use the cynical device of firing all the staff and then rehiring them on a contract which does not include holiday pay.
The work of teaching assistants has become increasingly important in schools, as they so often deal with children facing the biggest challenges to learning. And yet they are also often the first to suffer cuts as councils pick off groups of workers they consider to be the least able to defend themselves - in this case predominantly women who, in many parts of the country, are often not unionised and whose unions have a patchy record of supporting them when they are. If the cuts go ahead, some of the TAs will face extreme financial hardship, including some who will find themselves unable to afford their homes
In an excellent article in the UK Guardian this week, Aditya Chakraborrty describes the teaching assistants as 'the Lions of Durham' who have defied expectations by organising huge rallies and meetings, despite what he describes as lukewarm support from their union UNISON (although this is disputed by local UNISON organisers). If all their campaigning over the summer does not yield results, then a strike is planned for October.
The treatment of these teaching assistants is similar to that of teachers in too many countries in the global South, where temporary contracts and endemic low pay is the norm, in a profession which is predominantly female and overwhelmingly determined to do its best for children despite poverty and often shocking conditions. Like the lionsof Durham, these teachers too are the most important advocates and fighters for good, free education for every child.