CONTROVERSIAL moves to cut the pay of thousands of teaching assistants in County Durham is already underway in many of North Yorkshire's schools.

The ballot for teaching assistants to accept Durham County Council's revised offer closes today at 5pm – but schools in North Yorkshire have already been given free rein by their authority to alter contracts where necessary, The Northern Echo has learned.

A delegation of 35 teaching assistants from Durham have been lobbying for support at the Labour Party conference and held meetings with Unison chief executive Dave Prentis and GMB general secretary Tim Roache, who both offered their personal support. They also met with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner.

The teaching assistants are facing a cut of up to 23 per cent in wages as their contracts are altered to pay for term-time only.

If Unison’s 1,700 members of the 2,700 staff affected in Durham reject the county council’s offer later today, the union will ballot for strike action.

A spokeswoman for the Durham teaching assistants said the group had been warmly received at the Labour Party conference.

"When we have been given an opportunity to explain what is happening, everybody is hugely supportive, they can't get past the fact that we are losing almost 25 per cent of our income," she said.

The Michael Syddall C of E Primary in Catterick Village has just brought in plans to adjust the pay and conditions of its seven teaching assistants as part of a restructure.

The affected staff were told they would have to reapply for their jobs, for less money, and it is understood they have been sworn to secrecy, even from telling parents.

North Yorkshire County Council looked at bringing in across-the-board pay cuts to term-time only for teaching assistants, but some schools opposed it.

Instead the council allowed each school to choose whether they altered existing contracts – and many already have done so, or are in the process of doing so.

Mark Harrison, regional organiser for Unison in North Yorkshire, said of Michael Syddall Primary: "This school, like so many schools, is facing financial problems and is having to re-evaluate where they are spending their money.

"This restructure is in terms of how the teaching assistants’ working patterns are contracted and exactly how many hours they are going to be available to work.

“Many of these schools understand how valuable these staff are but they are left with little choice because of budget constraints. The Government says it has protected education spend, but it hasn’t increased each year in line with costs.”

A spokeswoman for North Yorkshire County Council confirmed that it had consulted with schools on teaching assistant contracts as long as three years ago.

She said: “At that time general teaching assistants (GTA’s) were paid term-time only for their work compared to advanced and higher level teaching assistants (ATA’s & HLTAs) who were paid for the full year.

“The county council therefore consulted on creating consistency for non-teaching terms and conditions.

“As a result of that consultation it was agreed that, from 1 January 2014, all new teaching assistant contracts would be term-time only, but that schools could decide for themselves whether they wished to explore alternative contractual arrangements for existing ATA’S & HLTA’s.

“Since that time some schools have restructured their staffing establishment to harmonise terms of employment and to better meet the operational needs of individual schools.”

No-one from Michael Syddall School was available for comment, referring The Northern Echo to North Yorkshire County Council instead.

Teaching assistants in Stockton had their contracts altered in 2008 to pay all staff for term-time only. It is understood Redcar & Cleveland Council has also gone through the process. 

A Darlington Borough Council spokesman said: “The majority of schools in Darlington have academy status, so headteachers and governors are free to make decisions about staff terms and conditions, subject to compliance with employment law.

"Teaching assistants at Council-maintained schools are paid on a term-time basis, in an agreement that has been in place since 2006. There are no plans to make any changes in the foreseeable future.”