Classroom assistant's husband tackles minister over her 'check-out staff pay'

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Standing as the Conservative candidate at the Southgate Comprehensive school election in 1983, Marion Bevan might never have guessed that the Labour rival she defeated would one day rise to the rank of minister. Nor could she have realised that their paths would cross again in such unusual circumstances.

Yesterday as the Schools minister, Stephen Twigg, was addressing teachers in Bournemouth he was harangued by Mrs Bevan's husband over the disparity in the old school peers' salaries.

Robin Bevan interrupted the £84,000-a-year minister to say that his wife, a classroom assistant, was earning less than supermarket check-out staff. Mr Bevan, deputy headmaster of King Edward VI Grammar School for boys in Chelmsford, Essex, the top performing state school, told Mr Twigg: "Do something about it - I mean do something about it."

Mr Bevan told the Association of Teachers and Lecturers that when he and his wife Marion visited their local Tesco store last weekend, it emerged that she was earning less than the check-out girl who had served them. "The girl earned £6 an hour and my wife said as we were leaving 'you know, she earns more than me'," he said. He said Marion was earning about £5 an hour.

Mr Bevan asked the minister: "Which of the two of you has done more of value to contribute to the education of young people in this country and when are you going to ensure that the terms and conditions of employment for classroom assistants accurately reflect the value of their work?"

Mr Bevan said afterwards: "I think my wife is very angry about pay - especially for those of her fellow classroom assistants for whom it is the sole family income."

Mrs Bevan, however, seemed more angry that she had re-entered the political fray without her knowledge. Returning from a shopping trip she discovered photographers waiting on the doorstep of her home in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex. A row with her husband on the telephone ensued before she issued a statement "clarifying" her position. "I thoroughly enjoy what I do but what I do is surely worth more than £5.70 an hour. I have colleagues who are the sole breadwinners and this is hardly a living wage. Some people still think of Learning Support Assistants as mums who come into school to help out but what we do is much more than just clearing up and teachers would be less effective without our support," she said.

Marion Bevan (nay Jones) came second as the Conservative candidate while a pupil at the comprehensive in Enfield, north London - a party she now eschews. Mr Twigg came fourth standing for Labour but is now MP for the constituency. The "election" was won by an independent.

They have met once since when Mr Twigg bumped into her and her husband in an Oxford street in the late 1980s. Mr Bevan and Mr Twigg were students at Oxford University.

Marion, who has three children - Sam, 12, Helena, 10, and Katie, five - gained a postgraduate certificate in child development from the Open University and worked in a nursing home before quitting her job on starting a family. She took the classroom assistant's job at her local Chalkwell Hall Infants School a year ago and may train as a teacher.

Mr Bevan said of his encounter with Mr Twigg: "He didn't realise how low the level of pay was for some classroom workers. I think he was sympathetic and he was interested to hear what Marion was up to.I was very taken with the fact that he recognised the issue and said he would take it back [to his department] with him."

Mr Twigg told the conference he recognised the valuable job done by classroom assistants but he hoped that he, too, would be remembered as having made a valuable contribution to improving education as schools minister. At present, classroom assistants' rates of pay are negotiated with local education authorities.

Many are not paid for the school holidays. Mr Twigg told Mr Bevan: "Clearly these decisions [over pay] are made at local level and there are good reasons for that. We want to learn from the best examples of good practice so that teaching assistants get the pay and recognition that they deserve."

Under the workforce agreement, teachers' workload would be reduced by allowing classroom assistants to take charge of lessons. By 2005, the agreement says, all teachers should have the right to spend 10 per cent of their day away from the classroom so they can mark and prepare lessons.