Support staff are being trained to take on enhanced roles in the classroom, but their impact on pupils' learning is far from clear, writes Helen Ward
Judith Howes is leading the revolution. She is one of a handful of higher-level teaching assistants (HLTAs) now working in schools.
Her status, awarded last month, is a recognition that she is capable of taking a whole class without a teacher present. But, like almost four out of five teaching assistants, Ms Howes, 47, of Hardwick primary school in Stockton-on-Tees, does not want to teach.
The former police officer, who is now studying for a degree in education, is happy with her dual role of supporting children in ICT lessons and liasing with the local community.
"When I began 13 years ago, teaching assistants used to wash out paint pots and look after children when they were ill," she says. "Now we play a much stronger role in learning activities."
The Government wants to upgrade this role by allowing HLTAs to take classes. But it has faced strong opposition from the National Union of Teachers, which says overseeing a class of pupils is a responsibility suited only to teachers.
School-based exponents on both sides of the argument are assured in their positions. But academics are less certain. One problem appears to be in finding out who is currently taking classes.
A National Foundation for Educational Research study for the Local Government Association published last month asked teaching assistants if they occasionally covered for teachers. Half of primary assistants and 40 per cent of secondary assistants said they did. But only 32 per cent of primary teachers and 9 per cent of secondary teachers agreed.
The authors concluded that "occasional" might mean different things to heads, teachers and teaching assistants.
"A teaching assistant might cover a class for 10 minutes at the start of the lesson and tick the occasional box. However, the teacher may not view this favour as cover," they said.
The study highlights the difficulties in probing into such politically sensitive issues. The framework required to allow HLTAs to take classes was put in place by the 2002 Education Act and then the January 2003 workforce agreement - a series of changes to teachers' contracts agreed by the Government, three teaching assistants' unions and five teachers' unions.
Christina McAnea, national secretary for education at Unison, which represents teaching assistants, said: "The Government has just caught up with what is happening on the ground.
"Staff are providing cover and taking whole classes. The agreement makes it clearer who can and can't take a class."
But the National Union of Teachers, which refused to sign the agreement, denies this. A spokeswoman said: "If it is happening, it shouldn't be. It is jeopardising pupils' education."
Improving education was the reason for the recent expansion in the number of teaching assistants. Former education secretary David Blunkett pledged funds for an extra 20,000 assistants between 1998 and 2001 to support teachers in raising standards.
Teaching assistants were given a key role in the Labour government's standards programmes, the national literacy and numeracy strategies, and in supporting children with special needs in mainstream classrooms.
Researchers attempting to work out the link between teaching assistants and pupils' learning have found a lot of goodwill but few clear facts. The NfERLGA study found 97 per cent of teachers felt that teaching assistants had an impact on pupils' learning.
But a team at London University's Institute of Education which followed more than 11,000 five to seven-year-olds between September 1996 and June 2000, concluded: "There was no statistical evidence that the number of teaching assistants or other adults in addition to teachers in the classroom have an influence on children's educational progress."
An Office for Standards in Education report, Teaching Assistants in Primary Schools, based on visits to 67 schools in 2001, found that schools failed to assess whether teaching assistants helped children, although it concluded that they did help teachers. It said: "The quality of teaching in lessons with teaching assistants is better than in those without."
Even the use of teaching assistants to ease teachers' workload has thrown up a number of unexpected findings. A pathfinder pilot in 32 schools found that teaching assistants had a greater impact in primary and special schools, where there were a number of "quick win" jobs they could take on, such as putting up displays.
But despite a cut of almost four hours in their working week, primary teachers had a smaller increase in job satisfaction than secondary teachers, whose working week was cut by just one hour.
Professor Hywel Thomas of the University of Birmingham led the evaluation.
He said: "Over the course of the study, teachers in primary and special schools became more positive about teaching assistants but those in secondaries did not.
"My view is that the benefits of support staff in school are very strong.
But teachers need to know how to work with those adults.
"Certainly, it is not a case of simply allowing a teaching assistant into the class and assuming that will lead to better outcomes."
Professor Trevor Kerry, emeritus professor at Lincoln university, said: "The research is ambiguous about whether or not there is a positive impact.
But there is no doubt that many teachers value what teaching assistants do."
Part of the difference between individual experience and overall impact can be put down to the wide variation in teaching assistants' training and experience.
Ministers hope that HLTA status will tackle that variation - at least for those working most closely with children.
The first 266 HLTAs were announced last month after being assessed on their existing skills. This term, 50-day courses to train people to HLTA level will begin. The aim is to create 7,000 of them by April next year.
The course is changing the perception of teaching assistants as a "mum's army". Liz Symes, who is jointly managing the HLTA course at Manchester Metropolitan university, said: "We have had a lot of interest, some from people for whom it is not appropriate. They need to be experienced teaching assistants but we have people who think it is a way of becoming a teaching assistant."
Training is starting to catch up with schools' needs, but pay still lags behind. And until this issue is addressed, there are concerns about how effective more training will be. Professor Kerry said: "There is a reluctance to face a fundamental problem in the system, which is that how much you pay affects who you recruit."
In the past few years, the teaching assistant's job has changed from paint-pot washer to class supervisor. And it is set to change further, but just how is not clear.
The National Joint Council for Local Government Services has developed three broad job profiles: supporting and delivering learning, managing behaviour and clerical curriculum support.
A study by Sheffield Hallam university for the DfES found that there are already more than 600 relevant qualifications for teaching assistants. The improvement in numbers, training and, in some cases, pay is welcome. But this has led to a decline in schools' willingness to make informal appointments of extra hands to help with mundane jobs, though that work still needs to be done.
As one teaching assistant told researchers: "We now have all the jobs the teacher wants to be rid of - mainly unskilled jobs such as photocopying and collecting money from pupils.
"We don't mind this as part of our role, but this is beginning to supersede our usual work. Will we have a teaching assistant to help us?"
ARISE, SUPER ASSISTANT TES JOBS 1, page 2