Kay Hall is west of Scotland area officer for the Association of Headteachers and Deputes
The situation of classroom assistants has caused concern over the last 10 years, for various reasons. Allocation of hours varies across Scotland, as do the pay scale, access to training and working practices. But it is generally agreed that these people are valued by teachers and managers. It is also widely believed that they are significantly underpaid for their committed work.
So it was no surprise to hear that the situation of classroom assistants, most of them female, finally came to the attention of the Equal Opportunities Commission. Its investigation has revealed a classic example of how work associated with women's traditional caring role has been undervalued. Assistants are paid as labourers, and there is little recognition of the many skills needed for their work or the fact that the job has become bigger, often involving a range of tasks and responsibilities.
Managers in the nursery, primary and special school sectors are well aware of the attitudes in society that perpetuate the idea that early-years work is women's work, regarded as less valuable, of lower prestige and therefore may be poorly paid. This is despite the indications from education research that some of the highest-quality teaching and learning may be seen during the early years in a child's school life.
The commission's investigation reinforces the recent report by the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, Time for Action - Making Change Happen. This offers a range of suggestions to encourage long-term positive change to ensure equality, fairness and justice for classroom assistants. A concerted effort must be made by all teachers, unions, local authorities and government agencies to ensure that progress will be achieved.
AHDS supports all the changes which would improve the professional life and status of classroom assistants. The initial job description has changed dramatically. The basic duties - contributing to the organisation, quality of care and welfare of pupils, and to the use of resources - have been extended. More significant now is helping pupils to access the curriculum effectively and supporting the quality of learning and teaching. These have become the main thrust of the job.
Our association welcomes the stretch of the traditional position but would advocate caution to make sure these changes do not become an abuse of the role. Classroom assistants are not teachers and, while assisting in the processes of teaching and learning, they should not be expected to take on the duties of teachers. They may have valuable work to do assisting in the classroom, but they should not be expected to get involved in planning the curriculum or managing the complex needs of some pupils. Classroom assistants should never be asked to supervise a class on their own, should never be asked to teach new concepts and should not be expected to assess pupils' development.
The commision's investigation found that some classroom assistants'
experiences were quite shocking. It made uncomfortable listening and, in some cases, the examples were most disturbing.
AHDS would emphasise the need to review areas and types of responsibility and would particularly welcome the implementation of Vision 8 in the EOC's report: "The national action group should establish a short-life working group to produce and disseminate good-practice guidance for local authorities and schools to raise the profile of best practice deployment, team working and school management."
* The report can be viewed at www.eoc.org.ukvaluableassets