COUNTY Durham teaching assistants have started a week-long vigil in protest against changes to their contracts.

They are taking shifts throughout their half term holidays as part of their campaign against the changes, which they say will result in many of them losing nearly a quarter of their pay.

Durham County Council has agreed to change the contracts of its 2,700 teaching assistants so they are paid during term time only to avoid equal pay claims from other staff, which it says could cost the authority millions.

The vigil this week, which will see teaching assistants take turns to hold a “silent protest” outside County Hall in Durham City, will finish in a third demonstration on Friday, October 28.

Teaching assistant Vicki Yarrow, 46, from Coxhoe, near Durham City, joined the first morning of the protest. She said: “I’m a single parent with a disabled son and come the cuts I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford my mortgage. My choice will be between giving up a job I love or giving up my house which is security for my son.

“It’s not a decision I want to make. I’ve worked at my school for nine years – children are my life and my vocation.”

Campaign organiser Tina Patterson said: “We want to remind councillors that we are real people facing real financial hardship if the council goes ahead with these life-changing pay cuts.”

Members of trade unions Unison, which represents around 1,700 teaching assistants, and The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) have voted to strike against the proposals, while those in GMB and Unite have accepted the council’s offer.

Caroline O’Neill, the council’s head of education, said: “We are aware that some teaching assistants are taking part in demonstrations this week and that some also remain unhappy with the revised and final compensation offer we made to all teaching assistants last month.

“This best and final offer, which was accepted by two unions, doubled compensation to two years, delayed implementation and was developed in consultation with the conciliation service ACAS.

“We have been very clear that this is not a position any of us wanted to be in and we have tried really hard to mitigate any impact linked to TAs being paid only for the hours they work. However, the threat of potential equal pay claims that could cost us millions hitting jobs and services, is very serious so we have to press ahead with these changes, as have all but one council regionally and many nationally.

“We very much hope that the TAs who may intend to strike will reconsider taking that action.”

The date for strike action has not yet been set.

Friday’s demonstration takes place from 8am at County Hall.