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A new force for good

'Higher-level' teaching assistants will be a new super-skilled breed. But, says Ralph Tabberer, they are no threat to teachers who will still be number one in the classroom

School staffing is changing fast. In the past five years, the number of teachers has risen markedly but there has been even faster growth in support staff. It is time to recognise that the school workforce is not 430,000 people - the number of teachers in England - but nearer 700,000.

The diversity of the new workforce has brought opportunities that schools have been quick to embrace. They have found that many administrative and some classroom duties can be performed perfectly well, and possibly better, by support staff. The situation is not unlike the health service where nurses and doctors are supplemented by healthcare assistants and other "associate professionals".

The new wider workforce demands that we reconsider, radically, the way we think about initial training and professional development. We should have initial training and lifelong opportunities for all those who work in education, not just teachers.

The national workforce remodelling agreement, signed by the Government, local authority employers and the school workforce in January of this year, paved the way for this. In today's TES (see Jobs 1), the Teacher Training Agency advertises for training providers to groom a new tier of "associate professional" for schools - the higher-level teaching assistants HLTAS.

This marks a major step in the implementation of the agreement.

Teaching assistants currently work in many roles in schools. They make significant contributions in supporting individuals, groups of pupils and particular curriculum areas. Traditionally, they have been committed to their own professional development but recognition and chances to develop their skills have been variable. Local training for higher-level assistants will be delivered by national training providers. This will allow those who are keen and able to boost their teaching and learning skills to achieve a nationally recognised status.

It is acknowledged, however, that teaching assistants have diverse backgrounds. Teaching assistants undertaking higher-level training will be able to apply this to their own situation; assessment against generic standards will also take place in the context of their specific specialist area. This allows everyone to be confident about the knowledge, understanding and skills that each higher-level assistant will bring to their work.

We have not forgotten teachers in this process and it would be wrong to see the advent of the higher-level assistant as diminishing the teacher's role.

In practice, teachers' roles will be enhanced. Teachers will be the leaders of a staff team. They will be the subject experts and pedagogy experts. But assistants, working under the direction and supervision of a qualified teacher, can enhance the team's work by bringing their own specialist knowledge to bear.

Teachers will remain the key players in both the design and delivery of what children experience. They will also take the lead in diagnosing children's learning needs and deploying the team to meet those needs.

Certainly, teachers will need to be well trained themselves to get the most from the new, wider workforce and to take a proper leadership role in a more diverse team. We are already working to strengthen this aspect of teacher training.

The introduction of higher-level assistants is a ground-breaking step and can only raise pupil achievement. But our national appetite for reform is not quenched. As a society we seek higher standards, more fairness, greater choice and a broader and deeper curriculum. As an education system, we are contemplating fundamental reform in early-years and 14-19, while looking to make changes in exams, inspection, information technology and much more.

To improve reading standards we need - as well as teachers - well-prepared assistants with a rich knowledge of literacy, able to extend readers and remove barriers to learning. To improve achievements in sport, we need young people to come into contact with a much broader range of activities and skills. To support those with learning difficulties and stretch the most able, we need a larger and more diverse school team.

It is inconceivable that all of this load should fall on teachers. The wider workforce needs to be ready for its fuller role.

Ralph Tabberer is chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency. The standards for higher level teaching assistants can be found on the Teacher Training Agency's website: consultationscompleted.htm

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