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Essential assistance

Nick Butt's staff devised a training course for classroom assistants - and the 'fully booked' signs went up within days.

We pride ourselves on being a bit different at St Edmund's. We serve an area of severe deprivation, and every day work at the cutting edge. Sixty per cent of our pupils have free school meals; 45 per cent are on the special needs register; and 12 per cent are statemented. So you learn quickly or you go under.

This has led us to develop expertise in managing children with learning and behavioural difficulties, and systems to cope. It means we have a staff who are mutually supportive - who laugh and cry together, and who share one another's triumphs and tragedies. We are used to being told we are not good enough, and have developed a hard skin, because we know, deep down, that we are better than anything else available. Two Ofsteds have applauded the work we are doing.

We wanted to share some of our good practice, to beat the drum a bit and to set out a philosophy of education to help people in other schools cope with the difficulties they face. And to be honest, we needed to diversify, because the money we get in our budget share is nothing like enough to meet the needs of our children.

Two years ago we developed a policy for classroom assistants - not a statutory requirement, but we believed it would be useful. We value our classroom assistants (you may call them something else, but you know who I mean) and we expect a lot of them. We involve them in planning, target-setting, individual education plans, raising standards.

Each is assigned to a particular class and forms a close working relationship with one teacher. They are given responsibility, and sometimes we pay them at instructor rates if the level of responsibility merits it. We send them on courses and encourage them to gain qualifications. We share in-service training days with them, and they each have their own pigeonhole in the staffroom.

We believe classroom assistants should have the same access to quality training that teachers take for granted. So we decided to provide it ourselves in a one-day course we devised called the Essential Classroom Assistant. The day is divided into three sessions: the role of the classroom assistant; the classroom assistant and special needs; and the classroom assistant and literacy. They are led by the deputy head and the special needs and literacy co-ordinators in the room we have set aside for adult education courses.

Our in-house caterers provide lunch, and coffee with home-made biscuits Before our first day, we acquired state-of-the-art technology for projecting colour slides from the laptop and sent a flier to 40 local schools, advertising two days, with 12 places available on each. Cost per delegate was pound;60. Both days were fully booked two days later, and we were having to lay on more training days. Within a week we had four days fully booked.

Schools are crying out for this kind of training. One school booked all eight of its classroom assistants on the course. They liked the fact that this was good, down-to-earth, practical stuff delivered by people who are in the thick of it every day. No airy-fairy theory. Straight answers to straight questions in a friendly environment.

Our first training day dawned. We made up badges, arranged the room and prepared coffee. Many of these assistants had not been sent to another school before, or been the centre of attention in quite the same way. One of our aims was to make them feel valued and special. Here they had a day devoted to their needs, where they could think about themselves for a change, and how they could make a difference to their schools.

For some this was liberating, for others revolutionary. We presented them with ideas - how we do things a certain way not because it is necessarily the best solution, but because it works for us. There was time to compare notes, to think about their own situations, and how their time is used.

We gave them all certificates at the end of the day. Their comments were moving - it was as if they had found a voice: "Today I felt valued and appreciated for the first time"; "I have done this job for 16 years and I have been on many courses but this is the very best I have been on"; "Please run this course for teachers, so that they know how we feel".

What did my staff get out of it? In talking about what they do, day-in day-out, they realised their true worth to the children. And a part of our philosophy had been passed on. They came into the staffroom at the end of each day elated and exhausted, but richer for it.

And what did the school get out of it? Profit, which will go straight back into resources for the children; the satisfaction of a job well done; and the thought that when our school's name is mentioned, instead of groaning and saying who would want to send their children there, somebody might say I went on a course there, and it was really good.

Nick Butt is head of St Edmund's community school, King's Lynn, Norfolk.For more information on courses, telephone Mr Butt on 01553 772018

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