Support staff are growing in numbers and impact. There are now more than 225,000 in schools, They include the classroom assistant who provides direct support in the classroom, the administrator whose filing means that attendance records are always easily available, the technician who makes sure the science lesson works well and is safe, and the midday supervisor whose playground management skills ensure children are settled for their afternoon lessons.
No teacher works alone these days. Other adults help them to work more effectively and make an ever-increasing contribution to the school and its pupils.
It is high time we gave all the support staff their proper recognition.
More than that, each deserves the opportunity to improve their expertise and skills and their understanding of the importance of their role. That is why the Teacher Training Agency welcomes Education Secretary Charles Clarke's invitation to take responsibility for ensuring there are stronger and more coherent training and development programmes in place for all school support staff.
This is a mighty challenge and our first step must be to listen to the views of the support staff themselves. This means speaking to them directly and building strong relationships with employers and unions, the Learning and Skills Council and education authorities, school leaders (heads and governors) and other national and local bodies.
We all need to share what we know and discuss how we can, together, build a better human resources framework for the whole school workforce. Last year, in The TES, I heralded the introduction of the higher level teaching assistant (HTLA) programme as a ground-breaking move towards further raising achievement in schools.
The pilot cohort has now come through its final assessment and more than 250 HLTAs are being told this week that they have passed and been awarded the new status. Training begins in earnest after April as about 30 providers start work. This will make 6,000 places available nationally throughout the coming year, with year-on-year increases to follow.
The stories being told by those working through the programme underline the fact that we must pay much more attention to training and development for all. Many of the HLTAs I have spoken to explain how they started as a general classroom assistant or volunteer many years ago, but only recently have their talents, needs and potential been fully acknowledged.
Many have worked in mixed roles, and the skills they have picked up have been a patchwork. For instance, an assistant may have become expert at individual work with children but had no help to build their group or whole-class skills.
I hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with encouraging some specialisation. It is terrific to see some school-based training sessions being led by specialist literacy assistants.
And remember the example of Judith Howes, winner of the Classroom Assistant award in the national teaching awards last year. The impact of her decision to become the information and communications assistant specialist at Hardwick primary school, Stockton, three years ago has been tremendous.
ICT development has accelerated across all age groups and other staff have been encouraged to improve their skills. Judith is in the first HLTA cohort too, and her new status will help legitimise her role and contribution to the school.
But we need a more systematic approach if we are going to realise all the potential that the wider workforce offers us. Development should be discussed and planned with each individual - and not just at the point where the school needs to take a quick decision. This is as true for HLTAs as it is for all our support staff.
The good news is that improving training and development for all makes no enemies. It meets personal needs - at last we might better recognise each individual and help them achieve the level of performance and skills they aspire to.
It meets schools' needs - how else can schools keep up with all the demands being made of them? And it meets national needs - it will help improve public services and workforce skills in step with the Government's ambitions for a higher proportion of people with good vocational qualifications. That is why we have been able to bring to bear extra resources from the LSC to support new workforce plans.
We have some big barriers to overcome as we move forward. A survey undertaken by the LSC indicates that no more than half of school support staff currently gain access to proper training and development opportunities. The qualifications framework needs to be simplified.
Management and HR practices in some schools need to be brought up to date.
Teachers will need new skills in leading mixed teams in schools, and the TTA has much to do to make sure that this is a strong element in initial training and beyond.
There is no doubt that today's schools need great support staff. The next step in raising standards, and in building more integrated children and family services, simply will not happen unless we take advantage of all the extra capacity and talent that the wider workforce brings.
Ralph Tabberer is chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency primary forum 22