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LSAs should be supporters, not the main act

There is considerable disquiet among learning support assistants about what the new national agreement will mean for them. When one considers their treatment by this Government, it's not surprising.

Over the years, LSAs have contributed a great deal to children's education, only to be rewarded with derisory wages and short-term contracts. Now the Government wants to go further and use support staff to teach classes - an even greater, more cynical exploitation.

But from the Government's point of view, it's cheap labour. It will save them paying teachers the salaries needed to address the retention crisis, and has the bonus of potentially causing division in staffrooms. Perfect.

Within schools, LSAs are widely acknowledged as making an effective and positive contribution, whether displaying a variety of support skills or providing pupils with a source of stability in a constantly changing environment. This role should be recognised, providing LSAs with a salary reflecting the job they do.

However, as this is not in keeping with the Government's assault on the pay and conditions of public sector workers, it's not on the agenda. Instead, it has been decided that LSAs will provide the solution to the teacher retention crisis by doing the teacher's job on a wage that Charles Clarke and David Miliband wouldn't get out of bed for.

The concept of learning support assistants as a form of cheap labour has not occurred overnight. The ground has been carefully prepared over the years.

One of the earliest signals was linguistic, but fundamental to the process.

Where previously people spoke of the pupil-teacher ratio, we were subtly introduced to the adult-pupil ratio. Suddenly, new opportunities opened up for the Government. And once this phrase had established itself in everyday educational parlance, it was game on.

Numerous articles in educational publications soon began to refer to LSAs and the need to redefine their role. This corresponded with a change in the job title, from classroom assistant, to learning support assistant, to teaching assistant. It was now clear that LSAs would find themselves being exploited as the Government attempted to solve the teacher retention crisis on the cheap. Of course, these articles rarely mentioned pay, but even more startling was the omission of any reference to special needs.

It appears that the role that LSAs were employed to do has been ignored as those in the education hierarchy set about redefining the role to suit their own ends.

The Government has failed to retain teachers by its refusal to improve their pay and conditions. The national agreement signed last month was the culmination of a deliberate strategy to circumvent teachers' demands, exploiting low-paid LSAs by using them to do the teacher's job.

LSAs I have spoken to are almost unanimous in their opposition to the plans. Despite being hailed as being in the best interests of all concerned, it is seen by many as "teaching on the cheap". As one LSA commented: "If I'd wanted to teach a class, I'd have become a teacher."

What LSAs want is a wage that genuinely reflects the job they do and the skills they bring to the classroom. All LSAs should receive a permanent contract. It is ironic that while stability is recognised as a crucial factor in a child's education and LSAs are seen as a source of stability for the young people they work with, they are subjected to the insecurity of short-term contracts.

Finally, a fully paid training route should be provided for those LSAs wishing to pursue a career as a teacher. Those wishing to remain as LSAs should be provided with a career structure which rewards experience, responsibility and training. LSAs deserve recognition for the job that they do today, not platitudes about what will be tomorrow.

Roddy Keenan is a support worker at a pupil referral unit in Brent

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