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Assistants won't help the profession

The number of teaching assistants in schools in England has more than tripled in the past 10 years, say Parliamentary figures, prompting fears that they are being used as a cheap alternative to trained teachers. Those of us who have regular contact with schools know this is the case.

The latest recruit to the "mum's army" is the cover supervisor. The job requires no teaching qualification, but cover supervisors are used to teach classes when qualified teaching staff are "not available".

This dilution of the profession must stop. Some teachers may see the workforce deal as manna from heaven, but it has poisoned the professional status of teachers.

Initially, only the National Union of Teachers challenged the use of unqualified people taking lessons, but it seems this challenge has diminished because of the lack of resistance from their battle-weary members. Heads say the number of assistants has risen due to the increase in the number of pupils with special needs in mainstream schools. But Ofsted has said schools too often rely on inexperienced assistants to work with pupils. I know from experience that in mainstream schools unqualified staff are often left to deal with special needs pupils because classes are too big for the teacher to cope with.

The root cause of problems in schools today is class size. Why do so many parents struggle to pay for private education? Because classes in private schools are smaller, so even the less academic pupils can flourish. Instead of paying the salary bill for assistants, the money should be used to employ more teachers and reduce class sizes. For the sake of their professional future, teachers must wake up and smell the coffee. The NUT should put this issue on top of the agenda at its Easter conference and shame the other teacher unions into following its lead.

If we are not careful, when Chancellor Gordon Brown discovers our schools are being run by people with NVQ levels 23 on salaries of up to pound;13,000 a year, the dilution of the profession will be complete.

Tony Callaghan Alpington, Norwich

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