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Sue sighs as she passes me a pink, scallop-edged card: "Dear Sue, thanks for all the help you have given me during our time together. You know what they say - behind every good teacher, there's a good classroom assistant."

Another Christmas, another teacher leaving before the school year is finished. The teacher, Jill, is a much-loved member of staff and her leaving caused a day of the vaguely hysterical grief to which children in Year 6 are prone. Sue is a special needs NNEB working with Year 6 in this, a sink estate school in Wolverhampton. "I wouldn't say I felt exactly patronised by the card - I suppose trivialised would better describe it," she says.

The wording, if not the sentiment, was ill-judged. The school, currently at level 4, has a gently ebbing staff, held together by regular supply reinforcements. The children are challenging, but have their quirks and compensations. Sue is a regular feature in their lives; she's been at the school for six years, a mother of three, and a relic of the mature staffroom crowd that once added richness to a school.

I encountered the same situation a few years ago when I taught in an early years unit in a school in special measures in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. In reception, the longest-serving, most respected member of staff was the nursery nurse - she was also the lowest paid. In the nursery, the nurses each took a part of the curriculum and planned it weekly. The nursery was Ofsted's favourite part of the school, but the pay differential was atomic.

From the days of paint-pot cleaning and display mounting, the brief of the NNEB and her like has changed. Jill, the departing teacher, no doubt meant her sentiments sincerely, but the classroom assistant is now not so clearly Tonto to the teacher's Lone Ranger.

As schools are becoming forcibly democratised, planning sessions are shared. It was Sue who suggested and implemented an additional structured reading programme. The SEN reading level in the class soared. But, bathed in congratulations, the class teacher failed to mention from whom the initiative came.

Nobody questions that classroom assistants are capable. The question is - how responsible should we expect them to be? Sue often finds herself alone with a group of Year 6 SEN children filling in the time on spec as a supply teacher is delayed. "It's starting to feel as if I should have a set of lesson plans, it happens so often," she complains. "I'm not paid to do that."

But God, don't you know when you have a star in your classroom helper? They are intuitive; they anticipate your needs and fill in the silence when your face goes beatifically blank. We all know this - and that such colleagues are invaluable.

Government initiatives don't need to tell us that Sue and her contemporaries can do more. What they do need to do is identify that all assistants are not equal.

In another school, my assistant had a masters degree, but was at best well meaning and at worst useless. There are some who are better than others, and perhaps through some kind of appraisal scheme this should be rewarded. So, no more gently condescending farewells, Kemo Sabe.

What we need are confident, articulate people working alongside us in the classroom. Let's be honest, everyone likes to know that the effort put into a job will be reflected in the pay packet at the end of the week. In the shameful absence of that, perhaps the least we can do is put our hands up and acknowledge a colleague's strength and the wealth of experience they bring to their role.

Jane Renton is a former primary teacher. She lives in Nottingham

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