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Teachers'll learn tha to be owt tha wants

Who does Sue Palmer think she is?" asked the letter to The TES, complaining I had labelled teaching assistants "uneducated". This is who. I am the granddaughter of an "uneducated" school cleaner, a woman whose wisdom, strength, understanding and courage shone through our family like a beacon.

She would, however, have been the first to agree that lack of formal education left her imprisoned by her class, language and gender. Throughout my childhood, she urged: "Listen to tha teachers, our Susan. They'll learn tha to be owt tha wants."

On Granny's advice, I listened to my teachers and learned how to read, write, reason, and many other things a Lancashire cleaner knew she could not teach me. I remember, at age nine, bearing home the information that "Beethoven", a word granny and I had stumbled over in one of her weekly magazines, was not to do with cooking some unknown vegetable called a beeth. My teacher explained it was pronounced "Bate-O-vun" and was a German composer who went deaf. Inspired by my interest, he brought in some of Mr Beethoven's music for the class to hear.

Over the years, I also learned that there were two ways to speak - the dialect I shared with Gran, and the "book language" I shared with teachers at school. Of all the knowledge that eventually liberated me to move away from my social and economic roots, access to "book language" - the language patterns of literate standard English - counted for the most.

There was a social advantage, of course, which I soon learned in England should not be taken lightly. But there was also an intellectual advantage - literate language is more explicit and organised than the spoken language patterns that acted as a constraint on Gran's thoughts. I was freer to explore ideas and explain my understanding.

If universal education is for anything, it must surely be to empower other children in the way it empowered me. They all need teachers who can not only tell them about Beethoven and other wonders of the world, but who also provide a constant daily model of "educated language". This is particularly important in the primary years when, as Thomas Jefferson put it, "the imagination is warm, and impressions are permanent".

For many years the educational standards required to enter primary teaching, along with substantial professional training, have ensured this is the case. However, as qualified teachers become increasingly burdened with bureaucracy, much of the direct contact with children is passing to teaching assistants, whose educational qualifications vary widely. In wealthier areas, where people can afford to take on low-paid but rewarding work, TAs are often as highly educated as the teachers. In other places - particularly poorer areas - few applicants for the job have been lucky enough to reach even GCSE standard.

This is a difficult subject to write about because it can seem offensive to comment on TAs' educational background. But as teachers withdraw into a managerial role, TAs are the people who will provide day-to-day models of thought and language for pupils. So it seems those children most in need of "educated" models will be ever less likely to get them. The gap between rich and poor will widen. We will end up with a situation where, in deprived areas, the educationally disadvantaged lead the educationally disadvantaged.

Education is not the only prerequisite for someone working with young children. In terms of honesty, warmth and understanding, my gran was one of the world's great teachers. But she knew that she could not offer a passport to the freer, more interesting, more comfortable life she wanted for me. And which we should all want for all our children.

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