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'The only sticking plaster holding schools together? The army of teaching assistants'

Under the twin pressure of funding cuts and the recruitment crisis, teaching assistants are even being used to take classes. This is totally unacceptable

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Under the twin pressure of funding cuts and the recruitment crisis, teaching assistants are even being used to take classes. This is totally unacceptable

There are two dominating themes to all school discussions at the moment: funding and recruitment. Both are at "crisis point".

First, let’s look at funding cuts. We continually get told by the gods that there is more money in the education system than ever before – and yet these same people expect schools to do so much more than just teach. Heads and teachers have to stretch their funding to pick up the pieces of a failing social services system, one that itself struggling with vast funding cuts.

Second, recruitment. Successive governments have ensured that teaching is now well down the list when graduates view the job market...poor pay, low esteem and massive over-work. Figures for new entrants are collapsing and teachers are fleeing the profession in their thousand, just as they reach maturity.

And how do schools cope with these twin crises? Well without the humble teaching assistant we would be in a far worse state than we are at the moment. It is they that are keeping the profession in one piece at the moment.

Teaching assistants increase

We now have more than 380,000 teaching assistants in our schools, a staggering number when you consider that in the year 2000 we had 79,000: nearly a fourfold increase. In fact, I am that old when I could remember a time when in our school of nearly 400 children we had just three.

Teaching assistants are the backbone and heartbeat of every school in the UK. However, what is now expected of them is far beyond the "role profile" each of them signed.

A recent study of their role in schools showed that more than a third took over the place of the teacher when absent, many for a considerable length of time. And all interviewed felt they taught more this year than last year.

It is fair to say that too many schools have used TAs as a cheap and easy way to solve budget and recruitment problems.

Pay and support

My experience of TAs in all the schools I have worked in has been extremely positive. Without them, schools would implode. But surely we must ensure they play the role that is expected of them. How many feel massively lacking the training or support needed to take on the roles imposed on them? And how many are appropriately paid for the additional responsibilities they now take on?

There are several ways for schools to deal with the insufficient number of teachers in the system – none of them pleasant: a shortened week, larger classes or more time on computers. Least acceptable is organising for classes to be taught by staff who are not qualified as teachers.

Has it really come to this?

Colin Harris led a school in a deprived area of Portsmouth for more than two decades. His last two Ofsted reports were "outstanding" across all categories

To read more of Colin's articles, visit his back catalogue

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