Schools have been waiting a long time for the Government's proposals on how to reduce teachers' workload. But now that they have been outlined in a consultation document, Developing the role of school support staff, not everyone is embracing them warmly.
While teachers welcome plans to increase the number of support staff in schools, many are concerned about the proposals to extend the range of tasks that classroom assistants will carry out. Others suspect that the emphasis on support staff is a less costly diversion from the urgent business of recruiting - and retaining - qualified teachers.
The Government's grand "vision" is, according to the document, to "unlock the full potential of the school workforce to raise standards of achievement, through developing the role of support staff".
It adds: "With the right training and supervision, as well as sufficient numbers, support staff can release significant amounts of time for teachers and heads to focus on their core professional role, improving standards of teaching and learning, not being dragged back by an excessive workload of other tasks."
Many schools already have extra support staff. Numbers have risen by 80,000 since 1997 and some schools now employ as many assistants as qualified teachers. The Government's aim is to increase the overall number of support staff from 200,000 to 250,000 full-time equivalents. It proposes three career progression routes, within a new framework encompassing qualifications and training:
* The pedagogical route would serve those supporting pupils and teachers in the learning process and would include a new and already contentious higher-level teaching assistant role.
* The behaviour and guidance route would take in all those helping schools with pastoral, attendance and discipline issues, including learning mentors who support individual pupils.
* The administration and organisation route could cover school administrators, maybe leading to a higher-level bursar role.
Additional funding for schools' mainstream budgets will include money for support staff salaries, but it will be up to governors and head teachers to decide how best to manage the funds and which staff to deploy.
"This increased freedom of choice ... opens the door to better pay levels for support staff," says Unison. But the union warns that removing demarcations can work both ways. "It can open up opportunities for support staff, but it can also mean that support staff will be given more responsibilities without proper rewards.
"Unison wants to see a clear role for LEAs to ensure schools apply fair and consistent pay and grading policies to their support staff." In particular, they are pressing for annual, rather than term time-only contracts.
For the National Union of Teachers, the proposed higher-level teaching assistant role is provoking the most consternation. Under a system of "supervision" by a qualified teacher, the Government argues that these higher-level assistants could help with "specified teaching work", such as planning, preparing and delivering lessons. Supervision, however, "need not always mean direct supervision exercised through being present in the classroom," the document says.
An NUT spokeswoman says this is unacceptable: "These proposals would undermine the quality of education being offered to pupils. It seems like a cheap way of addressing teacher shortages."
Eamonn O'Kane, National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers general secretary, says "absolute clarity" is needed about the role and responsibilities of qualified teachers and support staff:
"Qualified teachers and no one else must carry out the pedagogic responsibility in schools."
David Hart, National Association of Head Teachers general secretary, is more flexible: "I am confident that if we get a decent training and qualifications framework for these higher-level classroom assistants, and if schools have the money to pay them, I believe our members will be more positive towards this radical change." But he adds that the Government's opposition to recruiting more than 10,000 extra teachers must be tackled, calling its attitude "defeatist".
Carol Adams, General Teaching Council chief executive, says the disputes about teacherassistant boundaries have detracted from the real issues, and that schools need to embrace the idea of "learning teams".
She says: "It's about moving away from the notion that the teacher is there for every single moment, to a school with a whole range of people contributing. The teachers, as the top professionals, will be responsible for every child's development, while deploying others as and when appropriate. We see this is as the way schools will work in the future."
The consultation ends on 22 January 2003. Documents, including Developing the Role of School Support Staff and Time for Standards: Reforming the school workforce, are available from DfES Publications on 0845 60 2 2260, or on www.teachernet.gov.ukremodelling