Highlands & Islands

Highland pupil support assistants in strike ballot

Pupil generic Image copyright PA
Image caption Pupils, parents and carers are concerned some children will lose the support they currently receive

Pupil support assistants (PSAs) are considering taking strike action against a re-design of additional needs service in Highlands schools.

The union GMB Scotland said Highland Council's reduction of 63 PSA jobs was being driven by cuts, and not the interests of children or employees.

Parent and pupil-led campaigns also oppose the changes.

Highland Council said the service needed to change and that it was listening to parents, pupils and staff.

PSAs help teachers to meet pupils' emotional and educational needs in classrooms and in playgrounds.

The reduction in PSAs forms part of Highland Council's efforts to achieve a saving of £700,000 this year, before further saving over the next two years.

The local authority said it had been overspending on additional supports needs, which also includes additional supports needs (ASN) teachers.

Highland has the highest reported levels of ASNs in Scotland. The council is also reviewing these posts as part of the redesign.

A consultative ballot of GMB members among the local authority's workforce of PSAs has already supported the holding of a strike ballot.


The pupils protesting against the redesign

Image caption Skye Hawkins is concerned about the impact on young people who need support at school

Skye Hawkins, 17, from Cannich, co-organised a demonstration outside Highland Council's headquarters in Inverness.

She said: "I have been in the support system for three years now and when I heard that it could potentially be cut back on the amount of staff I just thought 'how drastically will this impact on the kids?'

"There are already kids who cannot attend school because they don't get the support they need.

"I myself was off sick because I didn't get the support that I needed."

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Drew Duffy, a GMB Scotland senior organiser for public services, said PSAs felt concerned and uncertain about their jobs.

He told BBC Radio Scotland: "The members have had enough.

"The council wants to make changes this year by redeploying 63 additional support needs posts into something else, and over the next two years they want to save £2m from the budget.

"It's a redesign of the service driven by cuts. It is not about what is in the best interest of the members and not in the best interests of supporting children."

Mr Duffy said PSAs did not take the strike threat lightly, being aware of the impact this would have on children they help in classrooms.


'PSAs are vital members of staff'

Image copyright Gail Troilus
Image caption Gail Troilus said her son Logan had progressed extremely well thanks to his PSAs

Gail Troilus' son Logan has autism and receives one-to-one support at Tomnacross Primary School in Kiltarlity, near Beauly.

"He has autism and suffers from extreme anxiety, high energy, short attention span and he requires varied methods of teaching to help him learn," said Ms Troulis.

"The pupil support assistants that work with my son have had to get to know him very well and work hand-in-hand with autism practitioners and learning disability nurses to make it possible for him to attend school and receive an education."

She added: "There was a time when his anxieties became too much for him to cope with and he stopped eating and drinking.

"His schooling suffered greatly as he found it too overwhelming. He would be in school 15 minutes before being sent back home as there was no point in him staying when he was clearly so upset and becoming a danger to himself and staff.

"It is because of the wonderful professionals and the amazing patience and understanding of his PSAs that he is now progressing extremely well and enjoying school again."

'All will suffer'

Logan has his own timetable with different activities - such as spelling and trampolining - offered five minutes at a time.

Ms Troulis said: "PSAs are vital members of the school staff. They provide support for all children.

"Children with autism require a significant amount of support, and a class teacher whether 'up skilled' as is being suggested by the council, could never manage to give the support required to those in need and to their other students.

"All will suffer if we lose this vital support as teachers will be forced to give time to the kids that require extra help and other students will lose out. What I can see happening is that the kids that are disrupting class will be asked to stay home.

"This would be no fault of the teachers at all and completely down to the council for failing our children."


Highland Council said children, including young people with autism, who needed help would still receive it, and its redesign would be done in such a way as to avoid redundancies.

It also said 30 to 40 of the 63 PSA posts were already vacant and that 50 people working as PSAs had indicated that they were interested in other roles, such as work in early years or retraining to become a teacher.

'Scaremongering'

Highland Council's budget leader Alister MacKinnon said the GMB had a representative on the board of its additional support needs project and was surprised by it ballot of members.

He said the local authority was still in the early stages of its redesign and he was concerned by suggestions of job cuts.

Mr MacKinnon said: "As far as I am concerned it is scaremongering. I find their comments derogatory in relation to the way the council is handling the issue.

"We have always been up front that we have a process to go through. We have to be more efficient and transparent and that is what we are doing."

Last week, council leader Margaret Davidson said it was unlikely pupils who need it would lose support.

She said: "If you get an assessed need and need ASN support then you will get it."

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