Unison criticises inadequate training and pay. Karen Thornton reports
A fifth of Welsh schools are trying to "side-step" improvements to the pay and conditions of support staff who have a crucial role to play in reducing teachers' workload. Unison, which represents many support staff, is also not happy about the lack of training in Wales for classroom assistants prepared or required to supervise classes while teachers take non-contact time.
While England has established 8,600 training places to enable so-called "higher-level" teaching assistants to take classes which have been set work by their teachers, Wales has no such courses yet.
The criticisms came as it emerged that a south Wales school has received 99 applications from teachers interested in a part-time job covering for colleagues' 10 per cent planning, preparation and assessment time. Teaching unions said the response showed there were plenty of teachers willing to undertake such work who would be better qualified to manage classes than support staff.
PPA time becomes a contractual requirement for all teachers from September as a result of the January 2003 workforce agreement. It envisaged better-qualified teaching assistants managing classes while teachers took their 10 per cent non-contact time.
But Paul Elliott, Unison's head of local government in Wales, said the union was still battling to ensure support staff were properly rewarded.
"Probably 80 per cent of schools accept that there has to be change and improvement in the position of support staff. A minority seem to be trying to side-step the proper arrangements," he said.
He cited Fairwater high school in Cwmbran, which has advertised for two cover supervisors, on up to pound;10,380. The contracts are for term-time only. Unison wants all its members paid 52 weeks of the year, or offered the option, by April 2007.
Branch officials in Torfaen are expected to contact the school and the local education authority about the "support and teaching" posts.
Stephen Cocks, Fairwater high's head, said all support-staff contracts in Torfaen were on a term-time basis. The school is employing cover supervisors as temporary stand-ins for sick teachers.
He added: "This year we received just over pound;20,000 for the workload agreement. That goes nowhere in terms of covering the cost of providing PPA on what is a reduced budget anyway.
"Our pupil numbers are static but we are losing the equivalent of three members of staff. It seems ludicrous to have to cut back on teaching staff to guarantee the workload agreement."
Mr Elliott also criticised the Assembly government's slowness in "getting training provision together".
A government spokesperson said it was piloting the "assessment-only" route for higher-level teaching assistants, which accredits support staff who already have the experience, training or qualifications to meet the required standards.
"There will be HLTAs ready to work in schools from September," she added.
Brian Rowlands, secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association Cymru, said:
"The vital role of support staff in releasing teachers for PPA time from September needs to be recognised now. A clear career structure with relevant training is necessary along with appropriate levels of remuneration. " Meanwhile, Margaret Lugg, head of Blaengarw primary school, Bridgend, was hoping to appoint a cover teacher today from the 99 newly-qualified and experienced teachers who applied for a 3.5 days-a-week main-scale post set up to cover other teachers' PPA time.
Mrs Lugg said: "I have competent and valuable support staff but a teacher needs to be in there. I want to drive learning forward."
The post is only for a year, subject to future budget settlements. Mrs Lugg said other Bridgend heads were appointing teachers rather than support staff to cover PPA.