Clued-up classroom helpers are a mixed blessing for teachers

Ofsted says professional staff need appropriate support. Diana Hinds reports

The growing army of classroom assistants is developing new roles in learning support. But this means teachers could find themselves without the practical support helpers have traditionally provided, an Ofsted report warns. Many primary schools now employ as many teaching assistants as teachers. Most of them are women. Between 2000 and 2001, the proportion of lessons in which teaching assistants were present rose to 41 per cent, and looks set to rise further.

Teaching assistants play an increasingly important part in the smooth running of the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, supporting teachers and pupils in the classroom as well as helping with related programmes such as Early Literacy Support, Additional Literacy Support and Springboard mathematics booster lessons.

These demands, however, compete with the time needed for assistants to provide more practical help, such as managing and preparing materials, welfare and administrative tasks. Some teachers are now having to do work that could be done more appropriately by their assistants. "Schools will need to manage these competing priorities carefully to ensure that teachers' workloads do not increase at a time when strenuous efforts are being made nationally to reduce them," says the report.

A paper from the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers also draws attention to the question of how far classroom assistants are actually easing the burden on teachers. "Teachers often find that the responsibility of managing the work of such colleagues an addition to their workload," the document says.

The NASUWT acknowledges that the role of teachers is being affected by the significant increase in the number of support staff, and believes that role "may continue to metamorphose in the years ahead". More thought needs to be given, the union argues, to "a clear delineation" of duties and responsibilities to be carried out only by a qualified teacher. The evidence from inspections shows, in general, that the presence of a teaching assistant can improve the quality of teaching, with the assistant's management of pupil welfare and behaviour "helping to create a better learning atmosphere in which everyone, including the teacher, can concentrate better".

The improvement is most marked when teacher and teaching assistant work in close partnership, or where the assistant follows a tightly-prescribed intervention or catch-up programme. Support is least effective when assistants do not have good enough subject knowledge or questioning skills.

In one school, for instance, the teaching assistant in a Year 5 maths lesson insisted her group of pupils carried on to the end of a worksheet on percentages without attempting to correct children's misunderstandings of the first few questions.

Maintaining discipline can also be a problem for an assistant. Only a minority, Ofsted says, were able to manage a group of 10 pupils in the Springboard 5 mathematics programme single-handed.

Schools need to work harder at monitoring and evaluating the impact of assistants on teaching and learning, the report recommends. "Some schools may be unaware that some pupils of lower ability or with special educational needs spend too much time with teaching assistants and do not receive enough skilled teaching from a qualified teacher."

Some of these issues can be tackled through training. So far, however, take-up of the DFES Induction Training programme has been patchy, with about one third of schools contacted still unaware of its existence, the report says.

Teaching Assistants in Primary Schools: An Evaluation of the Quality and Impact of their Work, HMI 434, can be found at: www.ofsted.gov.uk

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