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Pay peanuts and expect miracles

It is often said that if you want the impossible done, ask a teacher. But nowadays, it is invariably teaching assistants who are expected to be miracle-workers. Support staff who are classed as higher level teaching assistants, cover teachers or even associate teachers are today taking on roles that were inconceivable a decade ago. Many operate as short-term supply teachers and have to teach virtually every curriculum subject - even though their own academic achievements may be modest. The absent teacher may have drawn up the lesson plan, but once the classroom door closes the cover "teacher" is on her own - and, in some cases, earning a piffling pound;3.50 an hour extra for her pains.

The workforce agreement that brought about this revolutionary change is often portrayed by Government ministers as a "modernising" initiative. But one can also argue that it takes the profession backwards. Not back to the Seventies when James Callaghan gave his prime ministerial support to an all-graduate teaching profession. Nor to the Sixties, when the Robbins committee recommended four-year BEd degrees. But back to the pre-1944 era of the uncertificated teacher. Some historians will even see parallels with the early 19th century when the secretary of the Sunday School Union told MPs: "If teachers are to have the wages of porters or ploughmen, you will never get fit persons for teachers."

In fact, we have not returned to the bad old days of pupil teachers. Many teaching assistants have degrees, if not teacher training, and heads often insist that paraprofessionals are actually far more effective than the agency supply staff they used to hire.

Nevertheless, asking assistants to take on a teacher's role, without fixing decent national pay scales, is undoubtedly exploitative. It is also hard to see how this development can increase educational standards or enhance the status of the teaching profession. The General Teaching Council for Wales has said bluntly that only qualified teachers should teach in schools. A similarly emphatic statement from England's GTC now seems overdue.

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