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To boldly go beyond washing paint-pots

Gerald Haigh examines the increasingly important role of classroom assistants, and finds schools bullish about their status

You go into a key stage 1 classroom and find two adults at work. One is quietly reading a story to children grouped at her feet. The other is sitting at a table working with pupils on reading development.

One of these adults - and it is not immediately clear which - is a qualified graduate teacher. The other is a classroom assistant who may or may not have done some in-service sessions or, at best, the course for Specialist Teacher Assistants (STA) at the local college or university. Both, though, are promoting children's educational progress - which, you might think, is as good a definition of teaching as you will find.

Many classroom assistants are now so involved with children's learning that the label "non-teaching staff" cannot fairly be applied to them. This is a significant change. Classroom assistants, or helpers, have been around in infant schools for many years - the Hadow Report of 1931 approved of them. For much of that time, however, they were, to use a now-common metaphor, "paint-pot washers".

Ann Roberts, early-years advisory teacher in Northamptonshire, who has researched the history and changing role of the classroom assistant, finds that not only are there more of them, but they are increasingly working in classrooms with children. Special needs legislation in the early Eighties probably began this trend, and "the role has changed and developed since, partly as a result of the introduction of the national curriculum and assessment regulations".

Local management of schools has also played its part by freeing schools to employ more CAs. That this is a continuing trend is confirmed by a National Foundation for Educational Research survey last year in which 60 per cent of participating heads reported that working hours of classroom assistants had increased since 1992.

One headteacher who is bullish about the enhanced role is Lynette Hall, of Ruskin infants school in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, recently praised by the Office for Standards in Education for its effective deployment of classroom assistants. "They're not here to wash paint-pots, and they're not round the back cutting up paper when they should be involved with the children."

The Ruskin CAs attend weekly after-school planning meetings - for which they are paid - and are annually appraised. They are, though, according to Mrs Hall "very clear about where the role begins and ends".

Jacqui Boston, the CA who works with the three Year 1 classes at Ruskin, confirmed this. "I take my instructions from the teacher. I might make a suggestion - 'Do you think it might be easier to do it this way?' but the teacher is the one in charge."

The tasks that Jacqui performs with groups of children, though, call for sophisticated decisions as, for example, she talks pupils through a word-building activity. Vicki Chew, a teacher in Year 1, agreed. "She understands the needs of individual children and we rely on her heavily. "

So where is the professional boundary? A clear explanation of this came from Rita McRobert, special needs co-ordinator at Great Barr primary in Birmingham, where 13 assistants are employed. "I wanted a particular child to learn a five-word sight vocabulary, and my integration assistant came up with a two-stage idea for doing it. However, when the child had achieved it, the assistant came to me - she would not be the one to make the decision about what to move on to next."

Any discussion about giving CAs more responsibility for children's learning inevitably brings up the question of their training, and both Ruskin and Great Barr provide examples of the way that today's paraprofessional CAs are being trained.

The Ruskin CAs attended a part-time course last year run by the Northamptonshire Inspection and Advisory Service (NIAS). They covered modules not only on display, information technology and "Things to make and take", but also on children's learning in the core curriculum subjects.

Special needs also has extensive coverage - many CAs, of course, work with statemented children. Course members have to produce three substantial pieces of written work, and they receive a certificate of competence.

When I met some of the CAs on the current NIAS course, I found that one of the things they most appreciate is being given deeper insight into how children learn. Margaret Harris, for example, from Southend Infants in Rushden, near Wellingborough, felt that: "Coming on the course has helped me to understand why we are doing things. It's important to know that, and the teacher doesn't always have time to explain."

The cumulative effect is to make the CAs feel more valued. "I feel very different now," said Margaret Harris. "I have the confidence to contribute, where before I wouldn't have thought that it was my place to do so."

Up to 1993, local authority training was all that was available for CAs - and for most of them it still is. However, the current school year is the second in which the STA training scheme funded by the Department for Education and Employment has been made available through selected higher-education institutions. A one-year STA course will often include much of the material which the same institution is delivering to its first-year student teachers. (The Government's intention is that a trained assistant should be exempt from limited parts of an initial teacher training course should he or she later decide to become a teacher - the level of exemption typically adds up to six months of a BEd). A thousand STAs were trained last year, and a further 1,600 are currently in training.

Bev Baker, an integration assistant based in Reception at Great Barr primary, completed the STA course at Wolverhampton University last school year. She too enjoyed the opportunity to look at learning in the early years -"hand-eye co-ordination, reading acquisition - there was so much that was relevant. When I hear children read now, for example, I'm more aware of the nature of their mistakes and I can pass information on to the teacher - that someone needs more phonic work, for example. I'm also included in baseline assessment."

I met no teacher, head or CA who reported any misunderstanding about the professional relationship - though there is some evidence in feedback from schools involved in STA training that things are not always entirely relaxed. The same feedback also indicates that some heads - and CAs - believe that the high level to which STAs are trained raises expectations, about both status and pay, which schools are unlikely to fulfil in the immediate future.

Will Swann, who runs the Open University's STA course said: "We can give students a lot of skill and know-how but if they are not allowed to develop it's a source of immense frustration."

Those who deal with trained CAs, either as trainers or as heads, consistently praise their quality and level of commitment. Jane Kitchener, who runs STA training at Wolverhampton, for example, "could not believe that they would bring such a wealth of experience. They are hungry for training."

And one Walsall head who has STA-trained classroom assistants freely admitted: "I thought at first they were being asked to do too much and operate at too high a level, but I've been delighted - it's acted as a spur for them. These are first-rate people with an interest in education."

Will Swann, though agreeing with this perception, suggested that the astonishment indicates the extent to which CAs have been under-estimated. "It doesn't reflect too well on us, because we have been seeing these people through the filter of their job title."

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