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Surprise is inspectors' last resort

England's chief schools inspector David Bell is planning to visit the South Downs planetarium next week to peer at the furthest reaches of the universe, but when it comes to the tricky issue of classroom assistants deputising for teachers he is reassuringly down to earth. The inspectors'

role is to inspect teaching rather than teachers, he says. Assistants who take charge of classes after the introduction of workforce reforms in September will consequently be as rigorously scrutinised as their teacher colleagues. As Mr Bell points out, the reforms are supposed to raise standards as well as provide more non-contact time for teachers. Too often that first objective has been forgotten because attention has focused on the logistics and cost of the reforms.

No doubt standards will be maintained in schools where well-trained assistants are given clear lesson plans by teachers. However, there is ample anecdotal evidence that cash-strapped schools are asking assistants - who are sometimes called "cover teachers" - to act beyond their level of competence.

But how many instances of this kind will the inspectors find? Alex Dolan, a supply teacher who secretly filmed classroom life in Leeds and London for a Channel 4 programme broadcast last night, claimed that one head duped inspectors by drafting in staff from other schools. There are also well-founded rumours that local authority advisers have occasionally pretended to be teachers during inspection weeks. It is therefore certain that most headteachers will ensure that their less-experienced classroom assistants have no "teaching" duties on the days when the inspectors call.

Such subterfuge should be easier to carry off from September when the new era of two-day inspections is introduced.

If Mr Bell really wants to discover whether classroom assistants are being deployed properly he may have to resort to surprise inspections. That would create additional stress for everyone and convince many assistants that their paltry wages are no compensation for such stress. But it would at least help to ensure that children are not short-changed - and that must surely be the top priority.

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