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The TA tribe: nomadic, serene and endangered

To mark a significant birthday, one of our teaching assistants was treated by his family to one of those ancestry investigations that use DNA. Much to his astonishment, Frank discovered that his ancestral home was not - as he had previously assumed - deep in rural Derbyshire. His forebears turned out to be Masai warriors. Frank was thrilled at the revelation, but also slightly puzzled. "What I don't understand is why the hell they left Africa to head for bloody Matlock?"

Cynical colleagues consider the findings a little too exotic to be credible. I do not share their cynicism. I can well believe that Frank is descended from the Masai. In fact, I think all TAs will one day discover their common SerengetiMasai Mara heritage.

Just reflect for a moment on that proud tribe of TAs as they move across the game reserve outside your window; the TA-Masai genetic match is surely staring you in the face. How else can we explain, for instance, that preference for the nomadic working life? While most staff prefer to stay put, TAs wander from one habitat to the next. It is a cultural difference that plainly goes back thousands of years.

Similarly, while teachers become distressed and exasperated by even the mildest of unrest, our wise Masai warriors know life can be infinitely worse than a class not fully on task. We spend the lesson trying not to "lose it", while they go along with our duff lesson plan and carry on patiently and serenely with their allotted individuals.

They thrive on adversity, making things grow in the most hostile of environments. Even our reserve's notorious Big Five (the bunker, the puffer, the lip, the rascal and the layabout) are all valued by our own Masai. Members of this Big Five may like to rove around in a seemingly menacing fashion but they are mere meat and drink to our noble TAs - though no longer in a literal way. They enjoy working with them. They are, in a deep and almost spiritual sense, at one with them.

Who knows exactly what goes on within the TA camp, but I'm convinced I've glimpsed them performing a kind of jumping ritual uncannily similar to that of their Masai kinsmen. Do they get another boost by washing down their lunch with a traditional swig of cow's blood? Is the customary polygamy the glue that holds our TA community so tightly together?

Perhaps not, but it is true that they are a precious and remarkable people. Despite this, their survival is under threat. Governments are not particularly sympathetic to the tribe and several schools currently face a "redefining" of learning support entitlement just at a time when they need these people more than ever.

They are not just there to help us reach those hallowed exam-grade targets. We also need these worldly-wise TAs to offer us and our children warmth, calmness, humour and a sense of perspective in this data-driven world. So I thank you, noble Masai. Long may you work your miracles.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire.

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