Poor pay and job insecurity are big worries for the assistants, who suffer from varied training and inconsistent working patterns.
Yet they are carrying out a variety of complex and challenging tasks that make them much more than just teachers' helpers, according to researchers from Manchester University.
The Government is committed to putting 20,000 extra assistants into classrooms by 2002. It is focusing on training to help teachers with the literacy and numeracy hours. But the number of assistants supporting special needs children has also increased dramatically in recent years.
The researchers focused on those helping SEN pupils but believe there is no clear distinction between their work and that of other support assistants. They found that assistants doing similar work - sometimes in the same school - were on different contracts and rates of pay.
A survey last year by Unison, the public-sector trade union, found that 80 per cent of classroom assistants earned less than pound;7,000 a year, and only half had a permanent contract. Most were on the bottom rungs of local
government pay scales, regardless of their years of service or
"The whole issue of contracts and pay remains a source of great concern. Levels of pay are seen as being far too low when set against the work undertaken and their responsibilities," said researchers Peter Farrell, Filiz Polat and Maggie Balshaw.
Assistants welcomed training but said attending courses had no impact on their salary or career progression. While training providers said a nationally recognis- ed and accredited programme is needed, researchers found existing accredited training courses varied widely in their content.
When it came to the assistants'role, the study found the distinction between them and teachers was clearly understood. They were seen as responsible for implementing programmes developed and overseen by teachers.
Yet in practice, assistants were often taking a more active role - for example, in supporting groups of pupils, in assessment and recording, and in working with parents.
The report's findings are based on visits to education authority support services and mainstream and special schools; interviews with teachers, learning support assistants, parents, pupils and other professionals; and a questionnaire on training which was sent to training providers.
"The Management, Role and Training of Learning Support Assistants", price pound;4.95, available from DFEE Publications, telephone 0845 6022260.