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Assistants have a job but it's not teaching

In February 2004, the General Teaching Council for Wales responded to the Welsh Assembly government's consultation on new regulations relating to teachers' work and qualifications, cautioning against blurring the role of teacher and classroom assistant and calling for recognition of the depth and breadth of the professional role of the teacher.

Since then, various interested groups have pitched their stall on the issue. The National Association of Head Teachers threatened to withdraw from the workforce agreement. The National Union of Teachers and UCAC, the Welsh-medium teachers' union, restated their strong opposition to any expansion of the role of assistants - and refused to sign the agreement.

The debate continues with Unison (which represents classroom assistants) voting last week to suspend their involvement with the agreement.

While the GTCW has very much welcomed the support that classroom assistants and other ancillary support can give to teachers regarding workload reduction, it is adamant that teachers should always be in control of the education of youngsters.

The draft regulations attempt to define the role of teacher but are overly simplistic. They do not recognise the full extent of the professional judgment, experience and decision-making that qualified teachers need to exercise on a daily basis. Nor do they specify the support that a teacher can expect from a classroom assistant.

It is this failure to properly define the boundaries of each role that continues to cause the GTCW concern. Are there situations in which a classroom assistant can be left in charge of a class without a teacher present? Is it ever acceptable to substitute a classroom assistant for an absent teacher?

Some argue that the supervision of a piece of classwork set by a qualified teacher does not have to be carried out by another qualified teacher. But what if a pupil asks a question which the assistant cannot answer?

With proper guidance from the Assembly to heads and local education authorities, classroom assistants have a valuable role to play. Our position is clear. For each lesson there should be one class and one teacher. The roles of teacher and classroom assistant are not interchangeable.

Gary Brace is chief executive of the GTCW

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