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Helpers at the heart of learning

The first observation Veronica McIvor makes about the Pounds 66 million Scottish Office plan to recruit up to 5,000 primary classroom assistants over the next three years is that she does not much like the term classroom assistant.

"Teaching ancillary would be a better description," Mrs McIvor says. "It is an extremely important job which is at the heart of teaching - though not, of course, taking over from teachers. The job must be done by qualified people and if that is the case they deserve a better title than classroom assistant. That said, I don't want to go on too much about status."

Mrs McIvor is a qualified nursery nurse who has been seconded since October from Liberton nursery in Edinburgh to work for three years assisting primary 1 and 2 teachers at the city's St John Vianney primary. Her focus is on reinforcing children's literacy skills under the Government's Pounds 60 million early intervention programme.

"The job is very important, particularly in confidence-building with the pupils through one-to-one sessions," she says. "It is about more than just listening to kids reading, which is something you could bring parents in to do.

"We also have to build up pupils' knowledge about the basic alphabet, make sure their vocabulary is secure and use the full repertoire of rhyme, rhythm, story-telling, music and games to achieve that.

"Many pupils, particularly in deprived areas, simply don't have any enrichment in conversation or the range of even the most basic words."

Mrs McIvor says she is amazed at how keen the pupils are, willing the staff on to the next learning stage.

"That makes it a very fulfilling job when you can see measurable progress, when you are used to the full and when you are respected as a professional. "

She stresses that it is the teachers who must determine what the classroom assistant should do each day, a point was underlined by the Educational Institute of Scotland, which urged "limited" involvement by classroom assistants in literacy and numeracy work, "providing support in ways specifically identified by the teacher".

Mrs McIvor says she has no problem with that. "In nursery schools, nursery nurses - another term I don't like - are frequently used to compile pupil profiles and to conduct interviews with parents. But we are neither paid nor qualified to do these things.

"We should be very clear that our job is to pass information to teachers which they can then use for pupil profiles and in talking to parents."

At St John Vianney, Mrs McIvor says her key relationship is with the learning support teacher who "keeps her right". She takes three groups of children from primaries 1 and 2 each day, two in the morning and the third in the afternoon.

The pupils are extracted from the class to work with Mrs McIvor in the less than ideal setting of a school corridor. But she says there is no stigma attached to this because she works with all the pupils - those who are coping and need to be stretched as well as those who are struggling and underperforming. Parents are also closely involved.

The Government's plan is not just to support basic reading and number work but to engage classroom assistants to carry out administrative tasks, general supervision of pupils "and other forms of support to teachers". Work will begin this year on developing a competency-based training programme for assistants, expected to be largely provided by FE colleges.

Mrs McIvor believes people will be attracted into this rather more all-embracing job "provided the administrative tasks are related to what we do in the classroom and we are not expected to do the work of a secretary". She says she already has to spend time writing, reporting and recording.

The training programme will cover induction to the job, the role of the assistant and basic classroom theory relating to teaching, the curriculum and the child. Additional modules will be available for those who want to work with particular age groups or in specific areas of expertise.

Mrs McIvor gives every indication that the result will be a fulfilling experience, provided everyone gets the professional relationships right.

"I would love to carry on doing this work after the three year secondment is over - unless I decide to retire by then."

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