The trouble is, everyone has been so busy with literacy and numeracy hours, the revised curriculum, threshold assessments and performance management, that no one has had time to adjust.
As well as this increase in the number of school support staff, there has been a sea-change in the work assistants do. It started with local initiatives to help children with special needs. Teachers didn't have time for regular, intensive work with groups or individuals, so some special educational needs advisers trained classroom assistants to deliver support packages.
Last year, this idea went national with Additional Literacy Support, developed by the national literacy strategy, for under-achieving children in Years 3 and 4. Specially-trained assistants delivered scripted lessons to small groups of children, supervised by their teacher. Many children have made good progress and the system has been generally hailed as a success.
It also has helped to change perceptions of the classroom assistant's role. While they still have plenty of routine jobs, they are increasingly involved in genuine educational support, warranting the term "teaching assistant".
The future promises a Batman and Robin scenario in the classroom - teacher and assistant working in a complementary partnership. We can also expect more specialist teaching packages for dealing with trouble spots. These would feature clearly targeted, highly structured and scripted lessons to be followed by an assistant with individuals or groups, under the teacher's direction.
This is a significant change, but it need not be a threatening one. From the teacher's point of view, it has many advantages. It means another pair of hands and eyes in the classroom, a sounding-board for planning work and assessing children's performance, and someone to help cover the ever-increasing workload. And there can't be a working teacher who would sniff at the chance of a specialist course for pupils who are failing to thrive, with a specially-trained helper to administer it.
These developments also increase the status of the teacher: a lone superhero is not as impressive as a superhero with a sidekick.
For assistants, the change should mean improved status and greater job satisfaction. But while their work is changing, it is still classroom support, not teaching. There is a huge difference between following a specific script with a few children and shouldering responsibility for the national curriculum for a whole class.
Between 1999 and 2002, the Department for Education and Employment expects schools to recruit around 20,000 assistants. The national induction course, developed under the leadership of Jim Rose, former director of inspection at the Office for Standards in Education, aims to provide them with a basic level of training, consistent across the country.
It will be delivered through local education authorities by advisers or SEN staff. Teaching assistants will attend for four days, spread over five weeks, and must complete a pre-course assignment and follow-up work after each session. They will be supervised at school by a member of the senior management team, a "mentor", who will attend the first half-day and final day of the course.
The course has four modules:
* Role and context, covering the role of teaching assistants in the school, their job descriptions and the educational and legislative context of their work;
* Behaviour management, helping assistants to promote high standards of children's behaviour;
* Literacy and numeracy - these two modules are about supporting teachers in covering the national strategies.
Local authorities may adapt or add to these modules depending on local requirements.
"The course is not for people who have just walked through the school doors," Jim Rose says. "They need at least half a term in school to benefit from it."
He emphasises that the course is merely part of a staff management strategy. "Once TAs are back in school, it's up to heads to ensure the training is put to good use, involving teachers in on-going liaison and training, and developing productive classroom partnerships," he says.
Thoughts for heads
So, how far does your school go to support teachers and assistants in working together to further children's education? It takes two to create a complementary partnership and a lot of sensitive management to ensure neither party feels undervalued or overburdened.
* Start by ensuring each teaching assistant's job description is clear and up to date (taking into account the "role and context" module of the national training).
For incoming assistants, you could include this in a personalised file with other useful reference material, such as key information on the school, including names and responsibilities of relevant personnel, background information, such as explanations of jargon, and hints on aspects of support, such as how to help children with reading.
* Arrange an informal meeting between the teacher and assistant before he or she starts in the class. This helps to establish a basic working relationship.
The meeting should cover the job description, liaison procedures, classroom routines, such as the teacher's strategy for dealing with spelling enquiries, and personal preferences, such as how each party wishes to be addressed ("Chris" or "Mr Woodhead").
* Ensure there are clear lines of communication between the assistant and management, which can be set out in the TA's file.
Provide opportunities for regular liaison meetings between teacher and assistant, to discuss medium and short-term planning; the assistant's involvement in lessons; the progress of children for whom the assistant has special responsibility and any other aspects of classroom management.
In some schools liaison time can be arranged informally, but more often it will require a regular ring-fenced time allocation.
* Encourage written communication between the teacher and assistant as part of regular planning, including notes and suggestions from the teacher, such as vocabulary for the assistant to emphasise, and the assistant's feedback.
Decide with teachers how best to use these liaison sheets (and blend them into planning) so that they don't degenerate into a chore.
National induction courses are a good start, but they tackle the question only from the teaching assistant's point of view. However, since there is funding for only one "mentor" per school to attend, there is a danger that other teachers may feel under-informed and undermined.
* Ensure teachers are well briefed on the content of the national course. (Details are set out in the training pack being sent to headteachers of participating assistants. Further information about the training programme is available on the DFEE website: www.dfee.gov. ukteachingreformssupport.htm)
* Use aspects of the course to develop a programme of shared in-service training which teachers and assistants attend together to explore specific aspects of classroom practice.
* Invite assistants to attend other staff meetings and in-service courses relevant to their role in the school.
* When new resources or approaches are introduced (such as fast-track teaching packages to be delivered by assistants), make briefings available to all relevant staff.
Sue Palmer, a freelance writer and in-service provider, contributed to the DFEE's TA literacy module. For details of her INSET day on Teaching Assistants and Literacy, contact the Centre for Educational Management, tel 01494 459183. Suggested reading: Supporting Literacy and Numeracy: a Guide for Learning Support Assistants by Glenys Fox and Marian Halliwell (David Fulton, pound;13)