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New school year, same old problems: ‘How to explain to my child that his assistant won’t be coming back…’

This text was first published in Croatian on Radnička Prava, 09/09/2022. The article is translated by Borna Karanušić as a part of the cooperation between the members of the Eastern European Left Media Outlet – ELMO. The publication of this text was supported by the Agency for Electronic Media via the Fund for the Promotion of Pluralism and Diversity of Electronic Media.

The Croatian Employment Service has been full of postings for teaching assistant jobs in recent weeks. The need for teaching assistants in Croatia has increased from 1,000 to 4,000 in the last two decades, and today in Zagreb alone there are about 300 too few. But given  the poor working conditions, it is not surprising that there is a lack of teaching assistants. By Lidija Čulo.
The Croatian Employment Service has been full of postings for teaching assistant jobs in recent weeks. The need for teaching assistants in Croatia has increased from 1,000 to 4,000 in the last two decades, and today in Zagreb alone there are about 300 too few. But given  the poor working conditions, it is not surprising that there is a lack of teaching assistants. Pic source: LINK .

“Teaching assistant wanted. Type of employment: part-time, fixed-term contract. 27 hours a week. Transportation allowances partially covered. Job description: assisting in socialisation and overcoming socio-psychological barriers, also including sensory and architectural barriers, and assisting students with communication difficulties.”

“Teaching assistant wanted. Type of employment: part-time, fixed-term contract. 30 hours a week. Work experience not a requirement. Job description: communication and social inclusion assistance, assistance in movement, eating and drinking, assistance in hygiene maintenance, assistance in carrying out school activities and tasks…”

“Teaching assistant wanted. Type of employment: part-time, fixed-term contract. Knowledge of English and German preferred, experience in working with children with disabilities preferred, experience in volunteer work preferred.’

A new school year, new needs, new job listings… and the same old problems. This can easily describe the situation in which teaching assistants have been stuck for a long time. In the spring of this year, associations of teaching assistants organized a protest at St. Mark’s Square in Zagreb, highlighting the unbelievable fact that their status has not been formalized f for 15 years now. At the protest, teaching assistants pointed out that Croatia signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007, thus making commitments to introduce inclusive education, while at the same time recognising the importance of teaching assistants. That is, in principle at least, since their status is not properly regulated.

‘You’ll make social cases out of teaching assistants!’

Željko Stipić, president of the union Preporod (Revival), pointed out that these are workers who “basically live in the school without being school employees: they are not covered by contracts, they have low wages, and their employment status gets regularly terminated over the summer.” This also means that teaching assistants have no income during the summer because their employment status is terminated. “We were told to wait for an upcoming new education act that would include kindergarten assistants – there is no legal legislation or document concerning them. They are invisible, and there are about 4 thousand of them,” explains Iva Tadić, president of the Association of Teaching Assistants for Children with Disabilities Pun-Hr. The association consists of mostly volunteers who work as teaching assistants, but as they like to point out, they mean everything to the children: they’re speech therapists, they’re social pedagogues, they’re psychologists. However, their status is not regulated in the classification of professions in the public service, so they are classified as “other workers”, reduced to technical support.

Teaching assistants are workers who help children and pupils with special needs or disabilities during their primary or secondary education. Their work with a child is focused on integration into the school system, socialization, but also building the child’s independence according to their abilities, whereas the work plan is carefully designed and individualised since it depends on the specific needs or difficulties of the child.

Their work has been mainly financed by the European Social Fund in recent years. “This is actually a great opportunity to do what you like, meaning that certain officials within local self-government, as well as school employees themselves, interpret things howeverthey want. That’s why workers’ rights have been violated. While in some cases they pay for everything and keep to the main collective bargaining agreement for public services, others disregard it. In fact, they take even more from the workers,” says Tadić.

Slogans: “Will I still be working tomorrow?” and “Lets help children with difficulties but also those who are helping them” Photo: Facebook Pun-Hr

This is all the more shameful seeing that workers working with the most vulnerable of social groups do not have universal/state regulated employment status, nor do they have things like paid annual leave, transportation allowances, or even their own office space – a little room in the schools and kindergartens they work in. Many teaching assistants work for 4 hours a day and receive about 2,000 kuna [€ 265]. The Pun-Hr Association pointed out that in the city of Križevci assistants work 25 hours a week for 19.00 HRK [€ 2.52] per hour and made it clear that: “We don’t want to start a panic, but we certainly want to point out that it is very likely that many of our colleagues among teaching assistants and professional communication mediators will leave for better working conditions that will be provided to them working as a special needs personal assistant. (…) You are going to make social cases out of teaching assistants.” The whole situation is particularly troubling since the working conditions of personal assistants are in themselves poor, which we have already written about. Personal assistants are in a similar situation to teaching assistants: their status is unregulated, and the salary of 2,000 kuna [€ 265] for part-time work has not changed since 2006. It also needs to be pointed out that the current minimum student wage is 29.30 HRK per hour [€ 3.88] – whereas teaching assistants are expected to work for 19.00 kuna [€ 2.52]. A new law is on the horizon, which, according to the ministry’s announcements, should provide better working conditions.

Dissatisfaction peaked at the protests on St. Mark’s Square in the spring of this year led by the Pun-Hr association, along with talks about a general strike if the demands of teaching assistants are not met. They demanded, among other things, an increase in salaries, compensation for accumulated years of service and for alternating shifts, including paid overtime when substituting; payment of daily allowances during classes outside the classroom, (city) transport allowances or 2 kuna [€ 0.27] per kilometer; full medical checkups… Pun-Hr points out that it is necessary to provide additional professional training within working hours, psychological and professional assistance on certain specific requirements that a particular type of disability entails, consistent state funding within the budget that will lead to employment contracts becoming permanent, etc.

An hourly rate lower than for student jobs

“We assistants pushed ourselves out, as we did not recognise-identify an association in charge for fighting for labour rights,” Tadić explains. “The union should start this fight because almost any strike we organized would be illegal and would harm the assistants themselves. Lawsuits could be filed against us, we would lose the right to work, we would get penalties… What we can do is, for example, have the Preporod Union or the Union of Croatian Teachers organize a strike on behalf of us. This, in turn, also needs to be legally sound, and the union representing teachers, for example, does not recognize teaching assistants in its regulations and documents. If they were to organize a strike, they need to say who they are organizing it for. So, it’s not as easy to put into action. We need to go out on the street in even greater numbers and have parents stand with us when we decide not to continue working until certain conditions are met.”

Slogan: ”Show interest in our professions” Photo: Facebook Pun-Hr

Parents support associations of teaching assistants because they understand that their poor position also impacts their children, as seen in this mother’s comment: “This is a struggle for us parents as well. Our assistant gave up after two years because of the low salary. I don‘t know how I’m going to explain to my child that his assistant won’t be coming back, I don’t know how long it will take him to get close to his new assistant. I don’t resent the assistant, I’m being realistic, but it’s hard and I feel bad both for my child and for her because we really did have a wonderful relationship. She was like family to us. I hope that something will be done about this, assistants quitting is hell for every child!” Tadić points out that parents have a lot of understanding and are generally satisfied with them – this can be backed up by examples and data showing that teaching assistants often work with the same child for many years.

The Ministry of Science and Education has promised changes during the drafting of the new Education Act by the end of the year, but it seems that changes will not take place so soon. “The situation is abysmal, everything is the same as it was,” Tadić said. “It’s only the beginning of September, so it’s hard to predict how and if the status of teaching assistants will be regulated.” But here we are, we’re already receiving reports that things aren’t working as they should. Imagine coming to work and not having a place to put down your things, or not having even a small office room, not being allowed into the teacher’s lounge to grab coffee. You walk around carrying all your belongings in your hands, along with a child who is in a wheelchair for example… This is a shame for our country and for schools treating their colleagues this way.’

The number of urgent job listings for teaching assistants increases from day to day, but the conditions remain the same. The need for teaching assistants in Croatia has increased from 1,000 to 4,000 in the last two decades, and today in Zagreb alone there are about 300 too few. But because of the poor working conditions – for example, the hourly rate of about twenty kuna [€ 2.65] (with the exception of Zagreb where the hourly rates are a little higher) – it is not surprising that there is a lack of teaching assistants. In addition to this hourly wage discrepancy, the problem is calculating working hours in terms of class time, so instead of 4 actual hours, they are paid for 2 hours and 25 minutes of class time. In a few years, this will result in less than three years of service instead of the actual 5 years if it weren’t for this wage denial, that is, theft, as they openly call it.

“What will surely happen on January 1st 2023 is that a large number of teaching assistants will move to another position, they will become personal assistants,” says Tadić. “We have warned the Ministry of Science and Education of this, they have taken note of it – but there is no improvement. After those protests, no one has received us, not even the Prime Minister who promised to hold a meeting with us. Nothing has happened, nothing has changed…”

Until then: Teaching assistant wanted. Accommodation: N/A. Transportation allowances: partial. Type of employment: part-time, fixed-term contract, 20 hours a week. Two shifts. Knowledge of two foreign languages preferred, experience in volunteer work, experience in working with children with disabilities. Driving license type B required. Job description: support with communication and social inclusion, movement, eating and drinking, support with hygiene needs, support in carrying out school activities and tasks, communication support for deaf students, preparation for classes, carrying across visual/auditive information, cooperation with teachers, encouraging students… Hourly wage: 22 kuna [€ 2.92].

Lidija Čulo is a journalist and sociologist from Croatia. She works as a freelance journalist and her articles focus on social issues, workers rights’ and popular culture. As a tour guide she also writes about the (forgotten) cultural and historical heritage of former Yugoslavia.