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Classroom cover needs more clarity

Birmingham has led the way on training support staff, reports Phil Revell, but problems remain

THE deal is done and the next three years will see huge changes in schools, as an army of support staff take on roles that were previously the preserve of the qualified teacher.

But questions remain. Where are the new high-level teaching assistants and cover supervisors to come from? How will they be trained for the role? And, crucially, is the Government's timescale realistic?

"Support staff will need to know what's expected of them," says Nick Jones, head of Birmingham's Highfield junior and infant school. "There's got to be clarity and training."

Mr Jones is concerned about the tight timescale. By September, the 24 administrative tasks - ranging from photocopying to classroom display - should be routinely delegated to support staff.

By next year, there will be new limits on cover, effectively ruling out the use of timetabled teachers for anything other than emergency cover. By 2005, teachers will be guaranteed time for planning, preparation and assessment. This will mean support staff taking a much bigger role in the classroom.

This is familiar territory for Mr Jones. He has been using unqualified support staff to cover teacher absence for nearly a year. "It arose out of the supply teacher crisis last year," he says. "We'd observed our classroom assistants, we knew their qualifications, interests and strengths and we identified those who wanted to do it. But there's got to be training."

Birmingham has led the way on training support staff. Classroom assistants are involved in professional development days, and paid for their time, practices that are by no means universal. The authority has a training ladder that can take an ambitious candidate all the way through to qualified teacher status.

"We have said that everyone in classroom support work should have a level 3 qualification, says Cathy Waddington, who oversees the authority's training programmes. "We think that's absolutely vital to do the job."

The authority has worked with colleges and higher education institutions to develop the training. "A few years ago there was nothing around, nothing to provide a link to qualified teacher status," says Ms Waddington.

That has changed. For primary support staff there is now a ladder of opportunity that begins with the Government's classroom-assistant training programme, delivered by the LEA. This leads to Business and Technician Education Council (BTEC) courses in childcare and then on to foundation degrees.

People such as Karen Kirby can use the training as a launch pad for QTS.

She is in the second year of a part-time degree with University College Worcester. "It had to be something I could do while still doing my job," she says. "And you do need to carry on working. Not just for the money; you need the day-to-day experience in school."

Worcester principal Professor David Green is confident that the training could be provided. "We are prepared, willing and able to expand our provision," he says. "There is a pool of people out there who will want to do this."

But Karen Kirby's part-time course normally takes five years. How will training institutions deliver the bodies needed by September 2005? Professor Green pointed out that accreditation of prior learning was an accepted part of many HE courses. Candidates could use experience and training they had received in school to reduce the course time. Ms Kirby had cut her length of study to three years.

Unfortunately for the Government, Birmingham is not typical, and even there training for secondary support staff is more problematic. There is no equivalent to the BTEC childcare training that is the starting point for many primary assistants.

Secondary assistants are generally poorly qualified and poorly supported by their schools.

"We're not even invited to the professional development days," says one Midlands assistant. "I've never been offered any training by my school."

Last week's agreement between teacher unions and the Government should make it impossible for assistants to be overlooked in this way. It refers to a "professional standards framework and training for high-level teaching assistants". This will be developed by the Teacher Training Agency and will equate to a level 4 qualification.

A large chunk of Standards Fund money is specifically targeted on this training - pound;268 million this year - and the grant is guaranteed for two years. This money will be delegated to schools and can be used for support staff salaries, not just for training.

But the worry about timescale remains. In last week's TES, Roger Hancock, an Open University researcher, said that 90 per cent of the country's 100,000 assistants would need additional training before taking on a whole-class role.

BTEC childcare is a two-year course. Part-time qualifications take even longer. Can the Government really put the programmes in place in time?

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