Fran Abrams reports
In a tiny classroom stacked around with plastic boxes full of art and craft materials, Siddika Gurdere is teaching a small group of Year 4 pupils who have special needs. On the table are "feelings fans" with smiley, angry and sad faces. "OK," she says, "so our lesson is coming to an end and I would like you to think about what you have learned today. What was our learning objective?"
She speaks clearly, using her hands expressively because one of her pupils has hearing difficulties. "I learned about feelings," Ruthanne ventures tentatively. "And one of them is confused."
"That's right. Well done. And how is that going to help you?"
"It's going to help me to learn new things."
"Do you think it will help you understand other people?"
"Yes, that's right."
It's a scene that could be played out on any day of the week in almost any primary school. And yet an untutored observer might be surprised to learn one thing about it: Siddika Gurdere is not a teacher.
She is one of the legion of teaching assistants who in recent years has played an increasingly central role in schools.
Like most of the 13 others at Sandhurst Juniors in Catford, south London, she is a mother who started work when her children were pupils there. The job, she says, has changed completely in the 14 years since then.
"Teaching assistants used to sharpen the pencils," she says. "Now I plan my own lessons, I write small reports. I've done training in special needs, speech and language, autism, literacy and numeracy, among other things. I am not a teacher, but I do feel I teach."
Sandhurst Juniors values its teaching assistants. It includes them in in-service training days, and funds them to improve their skills on courses at Lewisham College. Yet one major factor separates them from the school's teaching staff: their pay. Siddika earns a headline salary of just Pounds 12,000, which in reality is around pound;9,000 because she is not paid during school holidays or lunch breaks. She says: "I love my job, and I am very much part of the team here. But I don't love what I'm earning. I don't know what I would earn in McDonald's, but I don't think it would be much less than I get here."
The number of teaching assistants in English schools has risen rapidly, from just 60,000 in 1997 to more than 150,000 today, with similar increases in Scotland and Wales. Almost all have developed new skills as their jobs have grown, especially since teachers were given a legal right to non-contact time.
One in 10 has completed training to become a Higher Level Teaching Assistant (HLTA), and a survey by London's Institute of Education shows that one in eight is educated to degree level or above.
Yet teaching assistants remain among Britain's lowest paid employees. A survey by Unison, which represents about 80,000 classroom support staff, found many councils set starting salaries at just over pound;7 an hour.
Some pay even less. In Somerset, jobs were being advertised last month at pound;6 an hour.
The major unions have been pressing ministers to introduce a national pay and career structure, but so far to no avail. In many schools there are just two pay grades for teaching assistants, so those who gain extra experience and qualifications can go unrewarded. At Sandhurst Juniors, Siddika's colleague Stephanie Taylor has gained HLTA status but earns no more.
"After five years you reach the top of the scale, then you can't get any more," she says. "The teachers have been brilliant about me going for HLTA status. Several of us here are already doing significant parts of the job.
And I am hopeful of getting a full HLTA role soon, but I haven't got it yet."
Val Hughes, the school's head, hopes to promote some of her assistants and would love to be able to pay all of them more - if her budget would allow it. "We do see them very much as part of our teaching and learning team,"
she says. "Pay is an issue, but our budget is stretched to the limit. If we paid teaching assistants more, we would have to have fewer of them."
But while the teaching assistants at Sandhurst Juniors feel part of their school community, despite the pay, others do not. Last month the Teachernet website ran a forum for classroom assistants that drew the following anguished request from a reception class assistant in Suffolk: "How can you get teachers to take you seriously? Some teachers at my school talk to me if they need something but at any other time ignore me. I started as a dinner lady but have had no training or been on any kind of course."
Another participant spent seven years as a primary teaching assistant and gained a diploma in nursery nursing, HLTA status, a foundation degree and finally an honours degree in education. "I have spent a lot of time and money in improving my skills and knowledge but feel frustrated as there has been no increase in my status, grade or level of pay in school. Has it all been a waste of time?" she asked. The forum leader suggested she should speak to her headteacher, but added: "As part of your professional development it may be that you consider taking a wider look at your career options."
In other words, if you want recognition, become a teacher. Yet many teaching assistants feel they have a distinct role, which they love. And making the transition is not always easy.
Anita Buffrey, for example, has worked at Ryton Park School in Worksop, Nottinghamshire for 14 years. She is a trained nursery nurse and has a specialist teaching assistant qualification from the Open University. She would like to be a teacher, but thinks the sacrifice would be too great.
"Throughout my career, people have said to me: 'You should go and train as a teacher.' And if I could study and get a qualification while doing the job, I would. But it wouldn't be easy for me to give up full-time employment to go and study. I feel there should be some way for teaching assistants to progress into teaching without having to go to university full-time - perhaps through day release. After all, we already have lots of the skills trainee teachers are taught," she says. "And I must say I absolutely love my job. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd still come to work. So to give it up would be a terrible wrench."
She feels lucky; her school has paid for some of her training. Others end up spending part of their already meagre income improving their skills.
Sally Wallace, a primary school teaching assistant in Dorset, has spent thousands. Like Anita Buffrey, she says she feels valued by her school, but she paid her own fees for an Open University teaching assistant certificate, and also for an advanced diploma in childcare and education.
"I've paid for everything," she says. "There was no recognition, either financially or in any way. When I mentioned that I wanted to go on a dyslexia course, they were a bit horrified. They were worried it would disrupt the groups I work with now. It felt short-sighted. I'm going for a specialist qualification that will enhance my work at the school. So why aren't they behind me?"
Sometimes pupils themselves give the most graphic evidence of how teaching assistants' roles have changed. When researchers from the Open University questioned children about the adults in their classrooms, they found pupils often struggle to distinguish between teachers and assistants.
"Well, Miss McAngel is the actual teacher, teacher, teacher," says Lisette, a Year 6 girl. "But if you like, you've got another teacher - pretty much they would teach us everything."
When Samantha, five, was asked to draw the adults in her classroom, she produced a picture of four teaching assistants, a deputy head and a computer before belatedly realising she had left out her class teacher.
"Whoops, I forgot David," she said, hurriedly sketching him in. The researchers used her comment as the title of their report.
Roger Hancock, a senior lecturer in education at the Open University, was one of those researchers. He believes there are major issues to be addressed about the roles of teaching assistants.
"As teachers become managers, and more laptop focused, in has come this new echelon of readily-available women who are increasingly moving into a teaching role. You have the same patterns elsewhere in the public sector, in health for example, but I suspect in education the encroachment on professional territory has gone further.
"They are often carers, for children or elderly parents. You will often hear them say they are grateful to be given these jobs. So they give, and give, and give."
THE BARE FACTS
There are 153,000 teaching assistants in England - two and a half times the number there were in 1997.
Four out of 10 are required to have specific job-related qualifications.
One in eight has a degree or a higher-level qualification.
One in five has no permanent contract, and just one in seven is paid during school holidays.
One in three earns less than pound;7.50 per hour. Ninety eight per cent of teaching assistants are women.
A QUESTION OF PROTOCOL?
Andy Barker, a history teacher at Bungay High School in Suffolk, believes it's important for teachers to build up a rapport with the teaching assistants who work alongside them.
"There's increasing acceptance among teachers that you have this extra pair of eyes and extra pair of hands in the classroom," he says.
"In the past that was almost resented by some teachers. There was a culture not so many years ago that what went on in the classroom was behind closed doors, that outsiders didn't look in.
"It's a very positive thing to have more teaching assistants, but it seems to have happened on the hop, without any national planning.
"I'm no lover of bureaucracy but it would be helpful if there was some sort of formal standard or protocol about what could be expected and what could be demanded of teaching assistants."
Extra assistants were initially taken on at Oakmere Primary in Potter's Bar, Hertfordshire in the late 1990s to help implement the literacy and numeracy strategies.
Today they have responsibility for implementing intervention strategies in maths and English.
Julie Lilly, acting head, says: "I can't remember how many teaching assistants we had when I came nine years ago, but there has been a huge increase. We're a two form entry school and we now have more than 20 teaching assistants."
She was deputy head and teaching for half the week until last term and says having lots of TAs in school is a good thing - although it does bring its own problems.
"It changes the dynamics of the staff. We've doubled in number and have to find physical space for that number of people. We also have to think about career progression for them.
"But there are huge benefits because we have increased the pool of skills and interests in the school."