Can supporters join this club?

Can a single 'super union' represent the interests of both teachers and support staff? Classroom assistant Pat Cooper thinks that it can but teacher Mick Carney is sceptical

Dear Pat,

I am a secondary teacher and was for 20 years on the national executive of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. I believe that the school system stands or falls by the quality of teachers.

There has been much talk of meeting the teacher shortage by recruiting other adult workers. I am the first to admit that colleagues who are not teachers add a lot to the school system. But using them to replace rather than support teachers risks diluting the quality of education students receive.

At the moment some of the demarcation lines between assisting and teaching are being blurred for the sake of expediency. The proposed teachers' super union must be clear that students need fully-qualified teachers in sufficient numbers. Attempting to represent other categories of school workers as well as teachers, would only blur this vitally important message.

Yours sincerely, Mick

Dear Mick, I am a teaching assistant in a primary school and like you am deeply committed to the provision of a high quality education for all children. I agree we need more teachers. However, with the Government's inclusion policy we need trained people in an intermediate role as well, to enable teachers to carry out their essential skilled teaching role.

I certainly do not agree that the use of well-trained assistants "dilutes" quality; more likely it will enrich learning and a combined union would be the ideal platform to ensure this.

I feel that now is the time for an injection of new blood and another dimension into teaching unions. All school staff have common goals: the education of children in the best possible environment and better pay and conditions for staff. We should all be working in union not as separate, conflicting bodies.

Yours sincerely, Pat

Dear Pat, We have no argument that assistants benefit schools nor do we differ over freeing teachers to carry out their "essential skilled" role.

However, you do not address the fundamental issue: the Secretary of State and others have talked of expanding the role of assistants into pedagogic functions. This cannot be acceptable.

The school remodelling group is debating the issue of who does what in our schools. It is important that it comes to clear decisions about the distinct roles of teachers and assistants.

As to injecting something new into teaching unions, the first step in that is for those unions to realise that there is more that binds them than divides them. As yet there is some difficulty in them working in union.

Yours sincerely, Mick

Dear Mick, The argument is not about assistants expanding into pedagogic functions (this is up to the Government, not assistants)but whether a teaching "super union" should be open to them.

I agree that assistants should not replace teachers but support them. This is why I feel that a dedicated teaching union would best represent assistants' interests, whilst taking into consideration the needs of teachers.

Such a union would be an ideal platform from which to lobby government to introduce a national pay scale for assistants, so that iniquitous pay differences across the country could be eliminated.

It could also provide the impetus for training schemes to encourage those assistants who wish to become teachers. Surely assistants would make ideal teaching recruits as they already know the system and could get sound guidance from the experts?

Yours sincerely, Pat

Dear Pat, I am delighted that you acknowledge my argument with regard to assistants taking over pedagogic functions. But I believe a new union would do best to confine itself to protecting teachers' role. The representation of another group of workers would make that more difficult as there would be inevitable debate about whose interests were being best served in disputes over the nature of that role.

Quality education is best achieved if we maintain high academic standards for Qualified Teacher Status, there is clear delineation of responsibilities and teaching assistants are supervised and managed by qualified teachers.

If roles are clear and the standards for assistants are established it will be easier to plan routes for assistants to achieve QTS.

It is clear that we share a belief in collective means to achieve national pay scales and standards and I applaud this, but I would urge you to ensure that your case is put through your union.

Yours sincerely, Mick

Dear Mick, I do not feel that the quality of education is going to be impaired by admitting assistants to a teaching union. A common body could improve standards even more, since divisions and misunderstandings would be less likely and teachers' positions better protected.

Working together at all levels, and having a greater appreciation of the problems of others would improve co-operation. A combined body could discuss and agree what assistants should and should not do. We could then better challenge the Government when it makes sweeping statements about what assistants should do, thus upsetting and dividing both parties.

We are intelligent, well-qualified people (much abused by the Government) capable of rational discussion about what is the most important issue here: education. We must demonstrate that we can work together to provide the finest education possible.

Yours sincerely, Pat

Pat Cooper is a teaching assistant at Charlton primary school, Wantage, Oxfordshire. Mick Carney teaches at St Bede's school Peterlee, Durham and is a member of the General Teaching Council Letters, 20

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