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The back - up brigade

They come from every walk of life: policemen, young parents and even teachers are making a fresh start as learning support assistants. What attracts them to the job? Karen Gold finds out

When we appoint teaching assistants, we look for people with energy and a vision of what our school is about," says Graham Huckstep, head of St Andrew's CofE primary school in Hull. "We don't take people who just want a job."

Cutting across the extraordinarily varied backgrounds of people who become teaching assistants, that description comes up again and again. Qualifications or even experience don't make a teaching assistant, say heads. It's the kind of person they are. Or, as Bill Watkin, vice principal of Leigh City Technology College in Dartford, Kent, puts it: "You need to know these people are in the room. They need to have a presence to carry it off."

In 1998, when the National Foundation for Educational Research carried out a study, 35 per cent of teaching assistants had non-academic qualifications in areas such as nursing or typing. Twenty-two per cent had GCSEs, just ahead of the proportion with A-levels or their equivalent (20 per cent). While one in eight had no qualifications at all, one in 20 had a degree. The proportion of assistants with degrees and other higher academic qualifications is probably higher now than when the study was compiled.

But it is still the group with vocational qualifications in areas such as nursing or typing which holds the key to the growing role of the learning support assistant. Few of these recruits are fresh out of education; most bring life and work experience with them. It is rare to find a 16-or 18-year-old choosing to be a teaching assistant as a career.

The picture is the same in inner-city Hull, where Graham Huckstep generally recruits among the existing parent volunteers at St Andrew's, and in fully-employed Kent, where, says Bill Watkin: "We have a steady stream of people writing to us asking if we have jobs, and we keep them on file. It's been a long time since we've had to advertise for an LSA."

New types of learning support assistant job attract a particularly high level of interest, according to Keith Hargrave, head of The Canterbury High School in Kent. This September, Hargrave replaced the school's teacher heads of year with year managers. These are non-teachers responsible for monitoring attendance, discipline, punctuality, lost dinner money and pastoral supervision.

For the six posts (one each for Years 7 to 11; one for the sixth form) the school received 86 applications. Successful appointees included two of the school's existing learning support assistants, two support staff from a pupil referral unit, and a retired policeman. The school had to reject another dozen suitable candidates. "The quality of the applications astounded us," Mr Hargrave says. "There's a pool of untapped talent out there."

People who would never expect to become teachers now see an opportunity to contribute to schools. That would certainly be true of ex-policeman Christopher Smith, 51, who has been Year 8 manager at The Canterbury High School since September. He explains: "I'd been working in the community with young people, and what sowed the seed for this was the problems you get on the streets with youngsters. I thought if I could get a job where I was dealing with them younger, maybe I could help put them on the straight and narrow before it got to that stage."

Once the job started, he found that schools do things differently: "I feel I have a lot of catching up to do on behaviour management. I need to do some courses."

Self-improvement has always been a powerful motive among teaching assistants, and as the job makes greater demands it also seems TAs are driven to further their own education. Many of them have enrolled on NVQ courses and a wide variety of foundation degrees.

The self-improvement culture is already established at St Andrew's in Hull, says Graham Huckstep, where TAs as well as teachers take part in performance management. The range of training being undertaken reflects the gamut of TA interests and aspirations in a school where, he says, the eight TAs have a wide range of responsibilities. "They help with reading and numeracy groups and display work, but they also go on residential visits and run football and other sports teams. Teaching assistants have a very high profile in this school," says Mr Huckstep. They are also working toward NVQs, nursery nurse qualifications and full teacher training.

There has always been a trickle of TAs who realise they want to take the long, slow road to teacher status. (A levels or an access course; four years of university; five years is generally the minimum). But, as exemplified by Diby Makalou (above), there is also an increasing flow of teachers going in the other direction.

* The former parent helper

Tracy Elbournes, 35, is typical of many learning support assistants. She was a long-term volunteer parent helper at Newnham Croft primary school in Cambridge, where, she says, she mainly spent her time "clearing up after children". She was asked to step in this term when an existing LSA became ill.

She now spends 15 hours a week supporting a child with special needs in the classroom. Now, with the previous LSA due to return, the school has asked her to stay on and run booster maths groups. Her own education was minimal, she says: she had worked as a care assistant and a telecoms operator before having children.

"It hadn't occurred to me that I could do this professionally. It's different from being a volunteer: you can't rely on the teacher all the time," she says. "If you see something that's wrong, you have to step in and deal with it. But the satisfaction of getting to know children in small groups, and of seeing children who couldn't write a sentence being able to write a page, is the same.

"Before I started work this term, I probably didn't want to get qualifications. Now I would say I definitely do."

* The ex-teacher

Diby Makalou is among the growing number of trained teachers who have decided to work as an assistant.

She came over from France as an assistante and studied for her PGCE at Canterbury Christchurch. She taught her probationary year at her present school, Leigh city technology college in Dartford, Kent. However, she found the experience frustrating and decided she would rather be a teaching assistant.

She told the school she wanted to leave and they suggested instead they create a new post of languages technician for her. "I'm the IT co-ordinator for the department," she explains. "I do the displays around the school and I take gifted and talented children out of the classroom and do extension work with them, and I do conversation with small groups. I support lower-ability children in the classroom. I sort out all the resources; I organise the speaking exams. I am using all the skills I didn't have the opportunity to use when I was a teacher, and I'm doing so many useful things."

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