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Case study: the classroom assistant

I wasn't surprised to find a Year 7 pupil waiting for me at the end of an English lesson - after all, I'm head of lower school. But I was expecting to hear about a problem with bullying or feeling ill and needing to go home, or simply the loss of a coat or school bag. Megan, however, wanted to talk to me about something else.

I run a course for parents who want to become classroom assistants. I started it five years ago as I became increasingly concerned about parents' reluctance to "cross the road", emotionally and literally, when their children moved from primary to secondary school. Recruitment to the course is not always easy, so I have always targeted parents of Year 7 pupils by sending a letter inviting them to a meeting.

This was why Megan was waiting for me. She'd taken the letter home and wanted to tell me that her mum couldn't come because she was dyslexic. Was there any way her mum could do it? I didn't expect Carol, Megan's mum, to turn up for the initial meeting, so I was delighted when she did, along with 10 others. I explained that the course involved 90 hours of learning time, broken down into 30 hours of theory and 60 hours of practical classroom work. Eight assignments had to be produced and you had to learn how to use resources and new technology.

Carol seemed uncomfortable when I started to talk about written assignments, and she stayed behind to tell me she wouldn't be able to cope.

I promised to help her and said she could use a word processor to produce her final pieces. Carol was an ex-pupil of Blakeston who left school with few GCSEs. Her favourite subject had been drama because she didn't have to write. After escaping from an abusive relationship, she'd brought up her three children on her own. She was determined to support them, but felt that she was letting them down when she couldn't help with their homework.

We had our first session the next week. I asked the group to think about and share positive and negative memories of school. Carol's positive memories were all connected to drama and how she loved the subject because she felt good about herself. Her negative ones revolved around feelings of being "thick" because her dyslexia stopped her from keeping up with written work, and she was disorganised.

Carol opted to complete the practical part of the course at Blakeston. She helped in the drama department and initially came into school for one day a week, but quickly (by popular demand) increased this to three.

Her confidence and self-esteem grew and she was soon accepted as part of the staffroom. She demonstrated her talent not only in drama but also in working with some of our most challenging Year 10 and 11 students. Each week she shared her experiences with other parents on the course and said how good it was to be able to talk about her dyslexia and, more importantly, to be listened to. I worked with her on rough drafts, and she would then type her assignments up, often with Megan's help. Ten months later, she passed with flying colours and began working in our school. She has since had another daughter but is determined to return to help in the school, much to Megan's delight.

Barbara Robinson is head of lower school at Blakeston community school, Stockton-on-Tees. She won the 2001 Teaching Award for working with parents and the community. For more information, see

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