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Take three schools

Monikie Primary, Angus

1 classroom assistant, 5 teachers, 95 pupils

Headteacher Trish Torz

Like everyone else in a small school, Monikie Primary's classroom assistant, who works from 10am to 3pm each day, has a wide range of duties.

She checks the register and orders the school meals, which are brought in from another school, and later sets up the gym hall for lunch. She spends an hour each morning on clerical duties, opening the mail, photocopying, dealing with parents and so on, and has playground supervision and first-aid duties. She also spends time in the classroom, preparing resources and wall displays and working with small groups.

"It is quite hectic for her. She was an auxiliary before, so she's been with us a long time, and the teachers are used to her being here and working with them. Also in a small school like ours there are always other people around - parent helpers, nurses, police liaison officers, countryside rangers - so our teachers are used to having other adults in their classroom.

"The main difference from a big school is that one teacher might have a classroom assistant in with her for a whole day. So they really need to plan exactly what they'll be doing to avoid interruptions. The problem with that, of course, is finding the time. The classroom assistant maybe starts at 9.30am and finishes at 3pm, so when is the teacher supposed to find time for planning and consultation? It's a problem.

"Mind you it would be nice to have enough classroom assistants to have that problem."

Mearns Primary, East Renfrewshire

10 classroom assistants, 37 teachers, 780 pupils

Headteacher Mhairi Shaw

Last year all 10 classroom assistants at Mearns Primary were timetabled and attached to classes. This year's model is different, with seven assigned to a particular year group and three partly timetabled and partly given a whole-school remit.

"We can use them to focus on improving writing or the appearance of our display walls. At the beginning of the year we sent the flexible team into all our P1 classes till the end of October to make sure the new kids got settled.

"I wouldn't say classroom assistants present a difficult management task, because we've delegated a fair bit of it to the teachers. Once we've decided how the resource will be used, it's up to the class teachers to choose which tasks to give them. I don't think there are more personnel issues than with our other staff, although because our classroom assistants tend to be very able people we do have a big turnover.

"Among our classroom assistants we have an occupational therapist, a former teacher, an architect, a librarian, a university lecturer. Some of them come into the job to get classroom experience before moving into teaching.

"Because they are often able people who are looking for career progression we need to make sure the kids and teachers get the best out of them while they are here.

"If they are used in a focused way, the classroom assistants enhance the ethos of the school and raise staff and pupil morale. Ours have become a really important part of the school team.

"There was some trepidation at first, with teachers wondering how to use classroom assistants, but what our teachers are saying now is: 'What would we do without them?'"

Bruntsfield Primary, Edinburgh

5 classroom assistants, 20 teachers, 500 pupils

Headteacher Barbara Boyd

One classroom assistant works in the computer suite and one in the library.

The others are timetabled to work with the teachers. Assistants are allocated to a specific stage, where class teachers collaborate to prioritise their use. Classroom assistants prepare wall displays, organise filing and assessment materials, fill in parental appointment cards, collect money, cover first-aid and playground duties, and staff Snack Attack, the Edinburgh fruit initiative.

"We have very good classroom assistants who make a huge difference to the school. But management of support staff is much harder than managing teaching staff. When a teacher's off you get supply cover, but with a classroom assistant you have to decide which teachers are going to miss out, what to do with special needs kids, who's going to cover playground duty - it's a huge web. We do find the absence rate among support staff - perhaps because of the lower pay - much greater than among teachers, who tend to come in till they drop.

"But I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Our classroom assistants and auxiliaries are being grouped together as learning assistants with a slightly wider remit. The new business manager will be responsible for all them, which will release the management team to concentrate on learning and teaching.

"We have lots of plans and we're all delighted."

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