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Help, I need somebody

Not just anybody, of course, but a teaching assistant can be your greatest asset in the classroom, writes Carolyn O'Grady

Gone are the days when teachers were always alone in their classrooms, kings or queens of their adult-free domain. Now there may well be at least one other support teacher with you, and the trend is growing. The Government has put up pound;350 million to recruit an extra 20,000 teaching assistants by next March, and will spend pound;200 million a year to maintain that number until 2004.

An induction training programme for all recently recruited assistants has begun, and the DFEE has issued a good practice guide on the management and deployment of teaching assistants.

They are now encouraged to see their job as a stepping stone to becoming a teacher. But not all schools have caught up with these developments. "Some schools haven't got beyond the expectation that assistants do little more than sharpen pencils and hear children read," says Nick Butt, headteacher of St Edmund's Community School in King's Lynn, Norfolk. TAs at St Edmund's are given responsibility and "sometimes paid at instructor rates if their responsibility merits it". They are involved in planning, target-setting, raising standards and individual education plans - and also attend in-service training.

Teachers should understand that a good assistant is a resource to be treasured, and not be afraid to give the TA responsibility. This can apply even to those who work alongside individual children with special educational needs. Many of these assistants work with groups or the whole class as well, since it can be unhealthy for a child to become entirely dependent on their TA.

Denise Murray, of Beaumont Hill special school in Darlington, is this year's Classroom Assistant of the Year in the National Teaching Awards. She says: "There's a lot an NQT can learn from a good TA. She can tell you things tat are useful in forming your relationship with pupils, and understanding their needs. Ask her for help - don't be proud."

TAs often have a strong insight into classroom dynamics, so the DfEE guide advises that they may be particularly helpful with children who find it difficult to form relationships. They can, for example, encourage children with English as an additional language to integrate into the classroom both socially and educationally. Assistants can also provide valuable back-up to the teacher in dealing with disruptive behaviour and spotting early signs of bullying.

In a busy classroom, they can help keep children on task. But for this to work effectively, emphasises Ms Murray, "the teaching assistants must have the authority to implement discipline".

TAs are now commonly given tasks once performed by the teacher. Many support groups in work assigned by the class teacher and help children use computers. Trained TAs have proved particularly effective in the literacy and numeracy hours.

But, once again, it won't work if the TA is treated as a mere pencil-sharpener. "TAs should be involved in planning lessons," says Mr Butt. "How can they work properly if it is a mystery to them what is happening next in the lesson that day?" Of course, there can be a downside. Butt warns that a very capable TA can intimidate an NQT without necessarily meaning to. And he has known instances "where a TA is fairly dismissive of a new teacher".

"In this situation don't be afraid to be assertive," he says. "You are the teacher."

Such conflict is rare though, and NQTs should understand that a good TA is a real support. As Mr Butt says: "It's healthy to have another adult in the classroom, to discuss ideas and the needs of your pupils."

Supporting the Teaching Assistant - a Good Practice Guide can be viewed on the DfEE website:

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