The new Government is planning to create more "flexible routes" into teaching for classroom assistants and other school support staff.
Details are sketchy but Labour's aim is clear. Earlier this month, then schools minister Estelle Morris told the National Association of Head Teachers' conference in Harrogate: "I'd like to see ways of letting your teaching assistants come through (into teaching)."
The comment was applauded by some heads, but many people are worried that it is already too easy for classroom assistants and others without teaching qualifications to step into teachers' shoes. The conference unanimously passed a motion expressing alarm at the growing use of unqualified staff, particularly in early-years, and called on the Government to work towards a professionally staffed nurseryearly-years service.
John Patten, head of Gorsewood primary school in Runcorn, who proposed the motion, is concerned that under the new foundation stage introduced last September, anyone who works with children from the age of three to the end of the reception year, is classed as a "practitioner".
"That seems to be putting early-years teachers on the same level as workers in playgroups," he says. "It's not the loss of status that bothers me so much as the clear message that you don't need teachers in early years."
It's precisely then that children are, as Mr Patten puts it, "at the most vulnerable and productive time of their intellectual development" and need the best-qualified people to teach them.
Barbara Kenny, head of Alexandra nursery school in Bolton, who seconded the motion, says: "We need people with high levels of skills who understand why we work in a certain way with young children, who learn in a different way from older children."
Under the Government's national childcare strategy, which aims to provide nursery places for all three-year-olds by September 2004, there will be more integration between nurseries and childcare, so children can be looked after on the same site all day.
"At present, a class in a local-authority nursery school is typically taught by a teacher helped by a nursery nurse with the Nursery Nurse Examination Board or similar qualification. But there are concerns that as the distinction between nursery schools and other childcare providers becomes blurred, some heads will be tempted to use nursery nurses to cover for absent teachers - or even to replace them altogether.
"It's obviously cheaper to employ two nursery nurses in a nursery class than a teacher and a nurse," says Barbara Kenny.
The use of unqualified staff to cover for teachers seems to be on the increase, and is not confined to early-years education. Birmingham education authority ran into flak this year after advising heads to use learning assistants to cover for absent teachers.
Cathy Waddington, the authority's acting assistant director for personnel and equality, stresses that assistants are only asked to cover for teachers in emergencies - and then only if they are working towards qualified teacher status within the professional development framework (see box left).
But not all schoos and LEAs are that scrupulous. The Association for Teachers and Lecturers gets calls every week from classroom assistants who have been put under pressure to take lessons.
Pointing out that these assistants are paid considerably less than teachers, Andy Peart, member adviser for the union, which began representing assistants as well as teachers last year, says: "We believe that support staff make a significant and often undervalued contribution to their schools and that no one should take advantage of that." He sees signs of a blurring of roles in the language that the Department for Education and Skills is now using, with references in some documents to "pupil-to-adult ratios", rather than pupil-teacher ratios.
However, others view the use of more inclusive language as a positive development. The Pre-school Learning Alliance, a charity that provides childcare training, wants to see everyone working in this field moving up to graduate levels of education. But the organisation is also against any relaxation of the rules that say that unqualified people should teach only where qualified teachers are not available.
Pat Barber, the charity's training manager, says: "We welcomed the use of the word 'practitioner' in the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's curriculum guidance because there are people with lots of different skills providing for the foundation stage, and using that generic word recognises their contribution."
Recognising assistants' contribution is one thing, but using them to tackle teacher shortages is quite another. As Olwyn Gunn, assistant secretary for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, says:
"If you go to a doctor, you really don't want the receptionist filling in, and this is the same thing."
CLEANER WHO CHANGED CAREERS
Yasmin Akhtar started out at Adderley primary school in Birmingham as a cleaner. But after taking a City amp; Guilds course in childcare, followed by a Certificate of Higher Education, she qualified as a classroom learning assistant and her career took off.
Currently Adderley's home-school project leader responsible for managing parental involvement in the school, Ms Akhtar is studying for GCSEs in maths and English, and hopes eventually to qualify as a teacher. At present, however, she says she would not feel comfortable taking a class on her own. Nor would the school expect her to.
Judith Jones, the school's headteacher, says: "I would never ask my learning assistants to cover. I don't think that's appropriate."
Adderley school was one of the early champions of a professional development framework that now gives all class-based support staff in Birmingham the chance to enhance their skills by studying for a National Vocational Qualification Level 3. Those who want to go further can have their previous learning accredited and join a certificate, diploma or degree-level programme.
Birmingham education authority's decision to team up with local further and higher education providers to develop this framework was driven by the teacher shortage. But according to Judith Jones, the opportunities on offer are also a way of showing learning assistants that their work is valued - whether or not they decide to go into teaching.