Gavin Williamson professed his support for England’s 264,000 teaching assistants at a meeting with teaching union leaders today.
Despite a leaked government document suggesting government fears that there are too many teaching assistants (TAs) in the education system, the new education secretary, whose wife is a TA, was said to "understand the significant impact that teaching assistants can have on pupils' lives".
Geoff Barton, general secretary of Association of School and College Leaders, who was one of the union leaders who met Mr Williamson in Westminster this morning, said: “He has an empathy around the role of teaching assistants which is unusual and very welcome.
Background: DfE plans for new behaviour initiative
Watch: Schools have 'blame-the-teacher culture' on behaviour
Long read: Inside 'Britain's strictest school'
“One of the concerns I raised were that people in the department didn't understand the significance of TAs who can often cut through to young people in the way a teacher sometimes can’t, and he was very, very sympathetic to that because his wife, who used to be a teacher, is now a TA.”
The leaked DfE document sparked concerns that the government wanted to cut TA numbers. Despite this, there was no actual mention of this in the extract from the document quoted in the Guardian, which said: "No 10 and HMT (the Treasury) have been keen to publicly express concerns about the rising number of TAs and set out Government's commitment to more effective deployment of TAs being integral to more efficient use of school spend."
Leaders of the NEU and NASUWT teaching unions and the NAHT headteachers’ union were also invited to attend the hour-long summit talks today ahead of a funding announcement for schools expected to be made next week.
NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates did not attend the meeting but sent head of education policy Darren Northcott in her place, said a spokesperson for the union.
Mr Williams reportedly refused to comment on the leaked document, which also suggested the government was set to announce a £2.8 billion funding boost for schools as well as other measures including raising teacher starting salaries to £30K, and ending Ofsted inspection exemption for 'outstanding' schools.
However he did mention “the need to make teaching a more flexible profession” and talked about “sharing resources so planning of lessons can be made more straightforward,” Mr Barton said.
He added: “This was a chance for us to talk about the most significant issues of the day, and he was keen to listen and ask questions.
"He really did feel like someone who wanted to learn about issues on the ground and that he had already gained a good grasp of what the issues were without it feeling as though he had some pre-ordained reform agenda.”
He said Mr Williamson was unable to give clarification on whether any money for schools would be new money, whether it would be made available immediately or whether it would include cash to cover the rise in schools' contributions to teachers' pensions.
Union leaders also raised concerns about the teacher recruitment and retention crisis with teacher’s leaving the profession altogether, or else becoming TAs, among other issues.
Mr Barton told Mr Williamson that the timing of the announcement of the 2.75 per cent teachers' pay award at the start of the summer holidays was "unhelpful" because it didn't give schools sufficient time to plan budgets for the forthcoming year.
In a statement following the meeting, Mr Williamson said: “It was clear from my meeting today there are no unions more committed to their cause than those that represent teachers and school leaders.
"It was an enjoyable and constructive meeting, and I’m looking forward to working with all our education unions on our shared goal of giving children and young people of all ages the best possible education and laying the foundations for success in whatever path they choose.”