A very visible means of support

28th April 2000 at 01:00
Classroom assistant numbers are mushrooming, while teachers are difficult to recruit. So, asks Alan Marr, is the Government considering cutting down on the professionals?.

THE dramatic increase in the number of classroom assistants in primary schools will have very significant repercussions for the teaching force.

Eight years ago primary teachers outnumbered support staff by more than five to one. By 1998, the ratio was just over three to one. But as the Government aims to recruit another 20,000 assistants by 2001 we calculate that this ratio will drop to 2.3:1.

Government statistics show that between 1992 and 1998 the number of support staff (full-time equivalents not including caretaking, administrative and clerical staff) rose to 59,000 - an increase of 60 per cent. During the same period the number of teachers increased by only 2 per cent.

What are we to make of this trend? One senior local authority policy-maker we interviewed during the first phase of our two-year project on classroom assistants expressed a view that many others share - the expansion of the support staff workforce indicates that a reduction in teacher numbers is being seriously considered.

"I have heard, although I still don't know where it fits with the Government's agenda, that they want more classroom assistants and fewer teachers. I suppose it could be part of the Government's strategy because they have such a (teacher) recruitment problem."

It is certainly true that the impending retirement of teachers who trained in the Sixties will create acute pressures. By 2005, roughly a quarter of teachers will be eligible for retirement. Current recruitment levels are low - although training salaries for postgraduate certificate in education students may help - and this has fuelled local authority speculation about how the Government can meet performance targets, and reduce class sizes.

Clearly, with the numbers of adults in classrooms continuing to rise, the targets could be reached if roles were changed, and definitions blurred. Already we are seeing references to adultpupil ratios rather than pupilteacher ratios in official statements.

In one of the three LEAs we have visited a significant minority of heads are pressing the authority to allow them to employ classroom assistants instead of teachers (assistants cost schools about a third as much as an experienced teacher). As the boundary between the work undertaken by teachers and assistants becomes increasingly blurred, not least because of support staff involvement in the literacy and numeracy hours, this option will become harder to deny, especially as LEA powers and responsibilities are becoming generally weaker.

Other poicy-makers in the

surveyed LEAs we are studying believe that the projected increase in classroom assistant numbers will change teachers' function. As new roles are specified for assistants, teachers will become "managers of learning".

This development will complicate the introduction of performance-related pay, making it even more difficult to assess the contribution of individual teachers. And it will raise questions about assistants' pay and conditions which have so far been ignored by both central government and many employers.

These changes will also have consequences for professional development.

But at present there is very

little in-service training concerned with the changing role of the teacher, the management of assistants, or the monitoring of their performance.

The amount of training for classroom assistants in the project authorities varies widely. One authority's training model is being disseminated nationally, while another authority estimates that it will take 10 years for all its assistants to be trained unless there is a large increase in funding.

The amount that schools spend on classroom support is also highly variable, and it fluctuates annually. Spending on assistants currently accounts for 5 per cent of primary-school budgets (although it ranges from 2 to 17 per cent).

This spending is in addition to centrally-held LEA funds supporting children with special educational needs, which probably represent another 5 per cent of school budgets. No one is auditing this spending, so are authorities and schools getting value for money, and can they sustain this expenditure?

Difficult decisions about special needs support are now having to be made in the surveyed LEAs. Budget pressures mean that statements of special needs are being altered to reduce the number of hours that children spend with support staff, and a significant number of assistants are being made redundant.

These redundancies will be of concern to the Government as the employment of classroom assistants is associated with wider social and educational goals.

The Government and local authorities see this recruitment drive as a way of increasing minority ethnic employment in the education service, and reducing benefit payments by employing people currently involved in the New Deal and other "return to work" schemes.

In a sense, the employment of classroom assistants is no longer solely about the needs of schools, teachers or children. It is about the drive for "joined up" government.

Dr Alan Marr is a research fellow in the School of Education, Open University. His research project has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

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