Assistants can spoil the broth

6th May 2005 at 01:00
A droll American commentator responded to criticisms of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by noting how peculiarly topsy-turvy the world had become. The best rap star was a white man (Eminem), the best golfer was black (Tiger Woods) and the Germans, of all people, were accusing the Americans of being belligerent.

Last weekend's National Association of Head Teachers conference was equally disorientating for those who remember how things were in the mid-1990s. The Tory education spokesman was cheered for suggesting tests for seven-year-olds could be scrapped and the Labour minister was booed for supporting school league tables.

At least one thing about the conference was predictable - heads' opposition to the workforce agreement, which seems to have grown stronger since the NAHT pulled out of the deal two months ago. But what happens next? If this controversy follows the path of so many other educational causes cel bres there may well be less disruption in primary schools in September than predicted. That is because most schools have achieved what seemed impossible. Heads have created the necessary planning, preparation and assessment time for their staff by employing cunning stratagems, or simply taking on a bigger teaching load themselves.

But that does not mean there is nothing to worry about. Many schools have had to set deficit budgets and will have to seek help from their local education authorities. Others have added to the growing concern about deprofessionalisation by giving classroom assistants what are essentially teaching roles and even calling them "associate teachers"(Letters, 26).

In some schools with well-qualified assistants this may not matter much, but in others it could jeopardise standards and sell children short. The architects of the workforce agreement will reject that charge, but the fact is that children could spend up to 500 hours of their primary education in classes supervised by poorly-qualified assistants. That should worry any government that truly cares about standards.

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