'Benefits of a union? I don't know what they are'

Shade primary staff like the idea of banding together, even if some are unsure what unions do. Richard Margrave reports

Shade primary is a model for close working relationships between teachers and learning assistants, according to a June 2001 inspection report.

The school, near Todmorden in Calderdale, nestles amongst the Pennines. It is an irony that surrounded by such beauty, the school itself is cramped, slightly claustrophobic and in need of more spending on its buildings, yet is over-subscribed.

And, while the gates are currently firmly closed against intruders, the school is locked in a battle to resist moves to reopen a right of way that runs directly through its grounds.

But despite the problems, classroom assistant Margaret Noble, describes the school as "happy and friendly", and Diane Barlow, special needs learning support assistant, agrees. "We have a very good staff, everyone gets on."

Teachers pay tribute to the assistants: "We all agree that the teaching assistants should be paid a lot more for the work they are now expected to do," says Brenda Bell, reception class teacher.

Crucially, teachers do not oppose sharing career paths or unions. Head Mike Hull supports teacher and assistant union unity. "It's a good idea that all of the staff should have the protection a union provides", but queries "whether the unions can actually get together and sort out their differences".

For their part, assistants know little about the benefits of union membership. But they understand only too well that their role is changing rapidly and they may need a bigger voice.

"When I first started in school it was mixing paints and mopping up after people being sick, but now it has very much changed," Diane Barlow recalls.

The assistants feel that they should seek union representation. Discount membership to reflect lower pay levels is vital to attract them.

Career opportunity is becoming more important, as Maxine Campbell, special needs learning support assistant, says: "A lot of people become classroom assistants because they have children of school age and it's a route to teaching."

Gillian Greenwood, nursery nurse, is keen to see better opportunities. "There should be more training so that you can progress in your career."

This is a group hungry for information, yet unions have neglected them. "What benefits?" Margaret Noble asks, "I don't know what they are."

But on this evidence, any new super union will be missing a trick if it fails to recognise the growing number and importance of classroom assistants in schools.

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