Since she started a specialist teaching assistant course, Alison Smith has noticed a dramatic change in James,the Year 4 pupil she looks after. "At the beginning of the year, he wrote one word and couldn't put his thoughts into words," she says, "but through my work, with the course and support from my school and teacher, I've helped him write a book and a poem. I've encouraged him to draw before writing and used story boxes to develop his imagination" Smith works at John Ball school in Lewisham, south-east London, with James*, who is on the autistic continuum. She mostly works with him within a group in the classroom because it is seen as important that he is included in the curriculum at every opportunity.
Like Smith, nearly half the teaching assistants in classrooms - 46,000 out of 100,000 nationally - are working with pupils with special needs and disabilities. Their role is a sensitive one - ideally striking a balance between providing support and enabling the child to develop independence as a learner.
Smith also has to balance her work between following activities directed by the teacher and, in consultation with the teacher, initiating strategies and creative approaches to learning, linked to her in-depth knowledge of James's particular needs.
"I've encouraged him to draw before writing," says Smith. "It helps him tell me what he wants to say. I've also used story boxes to help develop imagination and vocabulary, to help him express himself."
Smith's greater confidence in dealing with James stems from the boost she received from training. "The STA training raised my status in school, and gave me greater knowledge to discuss issues and problems with the class teacher," she says. "It gave me ideas about learning and helped me implement these.
"The training is important - it encourages creativity and confidence, and most of all promotes awareness of how children learn. You develop a range of teaching strategies and develop knowledge of a range of curriculum areas. I'm also more involved in joint planning - the teacher appreciates my greater understanding of her role and mine in supporting the daily routine."
Areas of responsibility for teaching assistants working with children with special educational needs may include behaviour support, working with children with physical or learning needs, communication, speech and language difficulties. They may be required to work or liaise with outside agencies, as part of a child's individual education plan, under the guidance of the teacher. In some schools, therefore, it is no surprise that a specialist role is developing for teaching assistants working directly with the special education needs co-ordinator.
There are several training routes for teaching assistants, with an increasing trend towards specialist modules for those working with different age groups and with groups of children with particular needs.
The specialist teaching assistant course that Alison Smith took at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education in south London is offered by some LEAs and agencies. The qualification is nationally recognised and pre-dates NVQs. It provides a direct point of entry into higher education and qualified teacher status.
*Not his real name
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Veronica Birkett, educational consultant and trainer, Staffordshire, will be speaking on How to manage and support teaching assistants: a course for primary schools. Friday, Oct 31 at 12.15
Stephanie Lorenz, consultant, Manchester, will be speaking on Using support staff to promote inclusion. Friday, Oct 31 at 2.30 pm
Olivia O'Sullivan is assistant director at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, south London