At last, teaching assistants, the unsung heroes of the classroom, have been given a career structure. But is it one they deserve? The new higher level teaching assistant (HLTA) status is open to those who have a GCSE pass in English and maths or the equivalent. They then have to be assessed on new higher level standards - none of the established courses or qualifications are acceptable. They have to meet 31 criteria, organised in three sections, similar to those for qualified teacher status: the first covers professional values and practice; the second is on knowledge and understanding; and the third is for teaching and learning activities.
These are tough, there's a lot of them, and they include several components. For instance, in the first section, assistants must "Ihave high expectations of all pupils; respect their social, cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic backgrounds; and (be) committed to raising their educational achievement". How do they prove those? What if one component is missing?
In working with individuals, groups and whole classes, they have to "demonstrate skills in planning, monitoring, assessment and class management". But, in many schools, planning and assessing are the teacher's role. Assistants are rarely on their own with a whole class - covering classes is an intended roles of the new higher assistants, not of the less qualified ones.
So, what are they to write about? The five minutes they were left in charge of the class watching a video while the teacher nipped out? Thus in the third section - "They advance pupils' learning in a range of classroom settings, including working with individuals, small groups and whole classes where the assigned teacher is not present" - becomes a significant challenge. Advancing pupils' learning is a reasonable expectation, but it isn't one of the standards for trainee or newly qualified teachers.
The Teacher Training Agency's (TTA) handbook explains the standards further, but there is little indication of what is good enough. I'm reminded of what Colin Richards wrote about qualified teacher status in a letter to The TES in 2000: "The standards represent an impossible set of demands which properly exemplified would need the omnicompetence of Leonardo da Vinci, the diplomatic expertise of Kofi Annan, the histrionic skills of Julie Walters, the grim determination of Alex Ferguson, and the saintliness of Mother Teresa, coupled with the omniscience of God."
Surprisingly, higher level teaching assistants are not being assessed through classroom observation. Instead, there are four written tasks to show they are meeting all 31 standards. They have to write about specific lessons and incidents with an individual, group and whole class. This is followed by a half-day visit to the school by an assessor, who reviews the candidate's evidence and discusses it with them. They meet the head and a teacher colleague.
Mary Jones, a special needs assistant at Langley Park boys' school in Bromley, Kent, can't see why anyone would want to apply: "If you're going to put all that effort in, you may as well train to be a teacher."
Assessors aren't allowed to watch the assistant in action, although most are used to being observed. Jill Staley, director of the support staff development group at the TTA says: "Observation in school by an external assessor would necessarily only provide a snapshot of a candidate's work, may not take place on a typical working day, and would be unlikely to provide the candidate with opportunities to demonstrate all the standards."
Yet with the assessments for QTS, induction and advanced skills teachers, a key component is observation.
Teaching assistants' contracts are appalling - most are only paid by the hour (ranging from pound;5.50 to pound;7.50) and not for holidays. Even putting in all this work to become a higher level teaching assistant doesn't automatically mean being on a higher salary scale.
What were the unions doing allowing this? Unison supports the assessment process, considering it "transparent" and a fair way to distinguish the higher level from the teaching assistants. Officials say that the workforce agreement gives teaching assistants more "status". This has vexed many on The TES online teaching assistant forum. One writes: "The very title higher level teaching assistant instantly devalues bog-standard ordinary ones! I don't want 'status' as a poxy baby-minder (sorry, 'cover supervisor') or half-baked teacher (sorry, HLTA). I would just like some recognition for the unique job that hundreds of us do, and to not be devalued because we only work in class and not IN FRONT of a class."