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Ride the training express

Support staff stand to benefit from plans to offer skills courses, says Emma Haughton

The government's decision to expand the role of teaching assistants has put the spotlight on training and career progression.

The Department for Education and Skills consultation paper, Developing the Roles of School Support Staff, proposes more training for all these employees, building on the success of the induction training for teaching assistants. The government wants to develop three broad career progression routes - pedagogical, behaviour and guidance, and administration and organisation - and intends to commission the Teacher Training Agency to develop standards and training for higher-level teaching assistant roles. It hopes to offer up to 20,000 places a year. Simpler progression for support staff who wish to become teachers is also being planned.

According to the consultation paper, all support staff could benefit from basic training in behaviour management, child protection, special educational needs and disabilities, and working with pupils who have English as an additional language.

Training in behaviour management, for instance, would prepare assistants to help maintain classroom discipline, cover for absent teachers and supervise larger groups during assemblies, school trips or sport. For administrative staff, induction training could also cover ICT skills and school management systems.

However, the quality of training available varies greatly depending on the area, according to Bruni de la Motte, national education officer at Unison. "Some authorities are very good and provide a lot of it, but even so a lot of teaching assistants have to take courses in their own time and even pay for them themselves," she says.

In general, there is no career structure for any school support staff, from secretaries to technicians, Bruni de la Motte says. Although Unison welcomes the DfES proposals to create higher-level teaching assistants, she says they do not go far enough. "This is the first time the Government has acknowledged the need to have a career path for teaching assistants in schools, but we want to see more than two levels that will properly develop their role."

Tower Hamlets in east London is one authority that has tackled the career structure question. It has created four categories of teaching assistant - entry level, intermediate, advanced and senior - which it wants all its schools to recognise. Equalities and partnership manager Sarah Gale says the advanced level is for those taking on more specialist duties. They would have undertaken training and are supporting some areas of the curriculum, as well as having specialised knowledge in areas such as special needs. The senior teaching assistant role, meanwhile, is for those who also have management responsibilities.

Tower Hamlets encourages its staff to work towards the NVQ for teaching assistants and is helping to create a foundation degree for those who want to become teachers. Assistants will be paid for a day off each week to attend the three-year, part-time degree. Afterwards, they will be able to do a further full-time, one-year course to qualify.

Sarah Gale says this option means those wanting to move into teaching do not have to make a decision about training full-time. "It's a big jump from being a teaching assistant in a classroom to a full-time student," she says. "The foundation course offers a gentler route, another stepping stone, which we hope will mean a larger number setting off to become teachers."

Nationally, there is a wide range of training available, including the Specialist Teaching Assistant courses and special needs courses, as well as qualifications offered locally. There is also a wealth of local, non-accredited training.

The main teaching assistant qualifications include:

* DfES induction training - basic training available to all teaching assistants after starting the job

* National literacy and numeracy strategy training

* Key stage 3 strategy training

* The new levels 2 and 3 NVQs, now available from a range of providers. They are practical, work-based qualifications for staff who want to demonstrate their competence or raise their level of practice to national standards. Candidates will be examined through classroom observation and on work such as preparation for lessons, as well as projects and assignments designed to test knowledge and understanding of the teaching assistant role.

* Foundation degrees offered by higher education institutions

* The Early Years sector-endorsed Foundation Degree, allowing an employment-based route to becoming a teacher.

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