A new generation of teaching assistants with higher status are entering classrooms. More than 300 students took up places on 11 pilot courses last November, and another 7,000 will start training from May.
Higher-level teaching assistants are a key part of the Government's strategy for reducing teachers' workload. They were included in the national workload agreement, signed just over a year ago by the Department for Education and Skills, employers and teaching unions (though notably not the National Union of Teachers). Assistants are free to plan their own strategic role within the teacher's lesson plan framework. Most controversially, they can work with whole classes when the teacher is not present.
Fiona Large has just completed a pilot course. She loves her job as an early-years support assistant at St Joseph's Catholic primary in Weatherby, and has relished the chance to develop.
"I get great satisfaction from helping children learn. I have considered becoming a fully- qualified teacher but as an assistant I can teach without being totally responsible for the lesson," she says.
She took her course with the Career Counselling Development Unit at Leeds University. Aimed at candidates already working at the required standards, it involved three days' preparation on their assessment. Back at school, she kept a training record of events and evidence to demonstrate her competence in the three areas covered by the standards: values and practice; knowledge and understanding; and teaching and learning. Finally, assessors spent half a day at the school discussing her work with the head and class teacher.
She says: "It was quite a lot of work. It highlighted those areas where I felt I needed more training. For the whole-class teaching, I worked alongside the classroom teacher and we made decisions between us."
Despite her school having no extra government cash to reward her professional development with better pay, Mrs Large is adamant about the value of her training and urges others to go for higher-level status.
"The course gives you time you wouldn't normally have to reflect on your day and on what you can and can't do. I feel more qualified, more respected by the other teachers, and more confident about standing up in a whole-class situation now. I had great support and could ring up my training provider any time with any question. You always felt there was someone there."
From May, the Teacher Training Agency will be offering two routes to higher-level status: a fast-track assessment-based course for candidates already working at the required standards, like the one undertaken by Mrs Large, and a longer 50-day programme offering more extensive training. The TTA is expecting to offer up to 20,000 training places on courses over the next three years.
Demand for the limited pilot places was huge. The CCD didn't advertise, opting to approach local schools directly. John Smith, its managing director, says the influx of applications to attend the pilots reflects the pride and commitment displayed by many classroom assistants. "The recognition element is most important. There is a clear need for a qualification which is more about status in terms of self- esteem."
Keith Brumfitt, professional officer at the TTA, hopes the current routes will be expanded. A third route would allow students on two-year foundation degrees to work for HLTA standards at the same time. A fourth "tailored" route would offer training of between three and 50 days to meet the needs of individuals who need additional experience in certain areas.
Many heads are enthusiastic about the higher assistants and welcome staff taking on more classroom responsibilities. Clarissa Williams, head of Talworth girls' school in Kingston Upon Thames, London, believes the new teaching assistants' qualification will boost morale. "It can be impressive to watch how assistants come into a school and develop their experience and skills. We need a more structured system to allow them to take on more responsibilities as their skills develop," she says.
"Ultimately, you don't want someone doing the same job year-on-year so they become demotivated. This offers a new career development opportunity."
But the big decision for school leaders will be whether to use the new assistants as cover for absent colleagues. Some heads think a battle has to be fought with parents over using the assistants to teach whole classes.
Others, like Clarissa Williams, are concerned budget constraints may force some heads to use them as teacher replacements.
She says: "It may be important to the self-esteem of an HLTA to be used in their specialist area and not as a cheap alternative for cover. Heads will need to have a clear idea of what an assistant's role is, use them as part of a total staffing strategy, and avoid devaluing the contribution they can make. I would be cautious about taking a higher-level assistant out of their classroom ."
Gareth Matthewson, president of the National Association of Head Teachers, believes most heads will have mixed feelings. He says: "It depends whether they are used as cover or simply to release a teacher for an afternoon.
They will work with a teacher and be far more skilled in developing work for children and if possible be used to release a teacher so he can undertake essential duties such as lesson preparation."
No new formal pay structure for HLTAs is proposed, even though they may have extra responsibilities. The Government has set aside cash for support staff salaries, training and development, and to support workforce remodelling. But it views the pay and conditions of all support staff as a local issue for schools and education authorities.
* assistants need to be recommended by their heads who will forward applications to course providers;
* assistants must have GCSE English and maths or equivalent, or expect to obtain them in parallel with their HLTA training.
* from May, there will be two routes to HLTA status - an assessment-only fast-track course (pound;550 per candidate), or a 50-day training programme (pound;2,150).