Cash-strapped headteachers are employing large numbers of classroom assistants to compensate for escalating class sizes and increased numbers of children with special needs, new research reveals.
Many claim their schools could not function without the assistants who in some authorities are paid less than lunchtime supervisors, according to a study commissioned by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.
Latest Government statistics quoted by the Leicester University researchers show that on average there is now one full-time equivalent non-teaching assistant to every eight teachers in primary schools across the country.
The figures reveal a 63 per cent rise in classroom assistants employed between 1991 and 1994 with numbers jumping from 13,641 to 21,914. At the same time, the number of primary teachers fell from 176,295 to 175,270.
The trend towards appointing more classroom assistants comes as heads and governors struggle to balance budgets amid tight financial controls and growing numbers of pupils needing special help.
It is backed by the Office for Standards in Education, the Teacher Training Agency and the Audit Commission.
But the ATL report claims it could have serious implications: "This arrangement has arguably increased some children's contact with adults but the quality of that contact is not being monitored by schools and therefore the expediency of this approach is questionable."
It said as classroom assistants were not trained teachers there was a general feeling that children, particularly those with special needs, did not always get a good deal.
Qualifications of assistants, usually parents known to the school, ranged from none to a certificate in education, while their work covered support for children with basic maths and English, helping pupils with special needs, washing the floor and cleaning paint pots.
Pay, set locally, is around #163;4 to #163;5 a hour and in some authorities less than that of dinner supervisors.
"The apparent belief by government that anyone can teach young children is misguided but catching," said researchers Janet Moyles and Wendy Suschitzky, from Leicester University.
"If CAs are to increase the quality of their teaching role, much in-service development is necessary. However, questions still need to be raised as to the feasibility and desirability of extending the role as a panacea for increasing class sizes."
They discovered that just 14 out of 94 classroom assistants in 15 schools had either completed a specialist teacher assistant course or were doing so. And with teacher and assistant increasingly working alongside each other apparently undertaking similar roles they said there were concerns about the level of training needed for people who work with young children.
They also found scant evidence of overt assessment activities taking place in KS1 classrooms either by the teacher or assistant and said that only 2 per cent of either of their time was spent on explicit assessment and recording.
Ministers have already scaled down the undergraduate courses for initial teacher training for primary teachers to three years and are questioning the need for degree level training for people specialising in teaching younger children.
The report, which covers classroom assistants in key stage 1 classes, said all schools should conduct an audit of the classroom assistant's duties and that they should have a detailed role description.
It recommended in-service training for teachers in ways of leading classroom teams efficiently and said pay issues needed to be sorted out.
"If schools continue to address class size challenges through the employment of classroom assistants, the reason for making this decision, as opposed to providing teaching hours, needs on-going investigation to determine how effective these arrangement s are in providing quality support for teachers and children."