Teachers acknowledge rising achievement in the early primary years but attribute this first to early intervention, then to the presence of the assistants and finally to cuts in class sizes. All three factors combine to improve infant education.
An interim study for the Scottish Executive by the Scottish Council for Research in Education reveals strong backing for classroom assistants from class teachers, headteachers and local authorities. They help to involve more pupils in activities, widen the range of experiences and improve motivation and behaviour.
The researchers last September gathered evidence from 96 schools, three from each authority, and report that teachers were able to spend more time concentrating on individuals and groups while the assistant supervised others, resolved minor problems and cut interruptions.
"The time classroom assistants spend in class supporting learning is seen as having an impact on the effectiveness of what teachers are doing, if not always on the amount of time they spend on teaching. Teachers still teach, but they may do so more effectively with a classroom assistant to help them," the researchers state.
Teachers said assistants had relieved them of routine tasks and freed more time for teaching. There was more interaction between adults and pupils, more practical activities and games, and more reinforcement of learning.
Most teachers found it easy to work with assistants and appreciated their flexibility, competence and initiative. Few said assistants had actually led to increases in their overall workload. However, some complained of a lack of time to plan ahead with them, the limitations of some assistants and the difficulty of working in a team.
The contracts of assistants may have to be reviewed to allow for more planning time, it is suggested.
Concerns about the initiative focused on future funding, training, clarification of assistants' role and allocation of their time. A small number of teachers were dissatisfied, half of whom complained about the small amount of time they had assistants, most of whom worked across several classes, some for short periods.
Teachers who had to make do without the extra hands were concerned pupils could be losing out while some in larger schools felt they could do with more assistants.
Jack McConnell, Education Minister, said the early signs showed that the initiative let teachers get on with teaching. "Classroom assistants keep pupils on task and encourage good working practices. They also work with groups of pupils on practical tasks, reinforcing learning and increasing participation in a range of learning experiences," Mr McConnell said.
He confirmed plans to double the number of assistants to 5,000 by next March, some based in secondary.
"An Extra Pair of Hands? Evaluation of the Classroom Assistants Initiative" by Ursula Schlapp, Valerie Wilson and Julia Davidson is published by the Scottish Council for Research in Education.
THE NEW BREED
There were around 2,500 assistants in August last year (now up to 2,600) working up to 30 hours a week. Most were women and more than half aged between 35 and 44.
They possessed a variety of qualifications and half had Highers. One in three had childcare qualifications and most had previous experience in schools, many as parent helpers and general or special needs auxiliaries. Most were very satisfied with their jobs.