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No rest for the teacher's assistant;A day in the life;Interview;John Liddell

John Liddell is a man in a female-dominated field and a versatile classroom resource. Douglas Blane shadows him for a day.

In many ways John Liddell is exactly what you might expect of a classroom assistant - hard-working, level-headed and someone who relates well to people of all ages. But he differs from most of his colleagues in two important respects - first, he is a man in an environment dominated by women and second, he works for West Lothian, which is possibly unique in offering the classroom assistants full-time employment, ie a 36-hour week and not just in term-time.

"That was one of the attractions for me," Liddell explains as he photocopies worksheets first thing in the morning at Toronto primary in Livingston. "I'm in my early fifties now and won't be thinking of retiring for 10 years, so I was looking for a full-time job."

The plan to put classroom assistants into primary schools initially met a mixed response from the teaching profession. The prospect of help for hard-pressed teachers was welcome, but there were concerns that assistants might be expected to perform a teacher's duties. Mr Liddell, who is paid pound;11,000 a year, has been working at Toronto primary since March, long enough for any such problems to have materialised.

"I know there were worries about classroom assistants maybe trying to do a teacher's job," he says, "but it's actually quite clear to me. When I'm in a class the teacher does the teaching and I'm backing up. If she's busy with one group, I'll be with those she's already set work for. Reading is a big thing just now, raising the standards of literacy, so I'll listen to the children to see if they can read the words and understand them. Outside the classroom I don't get involved with writing reports - that's the teachers' side of things."

Acting headteacher Aileen McLean says: "John sits in on lessons and answers any questions the children have. But they'll have gone over it with the teacher first, so there's always a line between teaching and reinforcing. Primary teachers can sometimes get quite anxious when someone comes into their class for the first time, but they soon get used to it and wonder how they managed before."

This morning Mr Liddell's first class is a Primary 4, and the lesson is the four times table. After 15 minutes on the carpet with teacher Mrs Rae, the children disperse to their seats to work on examples. The teacher initially concentrates on a few individuals while Mr Liddell moves around the class.

"I wasn't sure about this one, Mr Liddell, so I used my fingers."

"It's OK to use your fingers, Liam."

"Four times eight? Let's go through the stations, Gavin."

"Finished already? Well done, Breighe."

"What do I do next, Mr Liddell?" Senior teacher May Rae was Mr Liddell's mentor during the pilot study in March of this year and since then has been his immediate superior. She says: "At this school we're used to having support assistants, so we know where the dividing line is between teacher and assistant. Initially John's role was to support the more able kids but now he also works with the others. He listens when you're teaching, so he's reinforcing points you've put over, and he's in on the planning meetings and sees where we intend to go with the various groups. He's very good."

At morning break, the talk turns to men in primary schools. "With the children you have to be careful," says Mr Liddell. "We're told that it's best not to touch them at all. Sometimes they'll put their arms round you and you have to - not shove them exactly - just guide them gently away," he says.

"Obviously most of the teachers are women, but there's one male teacher here and I've been involved in primary schools for years as a parent-helper, so I feel quite comfortable." His own three children are all grown up, the youngest just starting university.

After the break Mr Liddell is in a Primary 3 class with teacher Dawn Roberts, who reads aloud the story of Maisie's first day at school, then asks the children to cast their minds back. What did they do on their own first day at school? How did they feel? Did their mums cry? Their dads? The children go into groups to write about it, and this time Mr Liddell is asked to work with just one group.

"We're under strict instructions that John is not allowed to teach and it's only follow-up," Ms Roberts says. "And I can imagine there would be some classroom assistants you wouldn't want to do certain things. But John's a big help. Not everyone has his rapport with the kids."

"It's spelt s-h-o-e-s, Ewan. Let's write it in your spelling book."

"We'll see if it's in the book, Kendell, then we can copy it out. Here it is - 'school'."

"Did you feel excited, nervous?" he prompts Stephen, who is wondering what to write next.

Before he became a classroom assistant, Mr Liddell had been a welder, a vehicle builder in a car factory and a shift operator with British Gas. He studied history and geography at Strathclyde University and two years ago was awarded a BA, since when he has worked in the stores and procurement department of a young offenders' institution.

Judging by his efforts, there is clearly more to being a classroom assistant than tying children's shoelaces. "But in this job you have to be flexible," he says.

"I used to work with football teams and quite a few footballers can't lace their own boots up. If it needs doing, I don't have a problem with tying children's shoelaces."

West Lothian Education Services' booklet "Working with a Classroom Assistant" has sections on selection, training, time allocation, duties in and out of the classroom and a job description, log and checklist. Call Hugh Tuckerman, tel: 01506 776034.

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