The role of the teaching assistant is one of the fastest growing and changing in education. Over the past five years, many of these vital support staff - whether they are called teaching, learning support or classroom assistants - have been propelled into positions of great responsibility.
The rising number of children with special needs in mainstream education makes teachers particularly reliant on assistants, who, in turn, have a chance to pursue a range of qualifications and develop specialisms.
THE WAY WE ARE
"There is beginning to be a movement away from teaching assistants being 'Velcro-ed' to an individual child with special needs, to a better use of their time and skills - for instance, working with groups," says Christine Hickman of the Centre for Special Needs and Educational Research at University College Northampton. "Assistants are more aware of their potential, and have a greater sense of career progression."
The way assistants are used in the classroom, and the extent to which they are trained, varies hugely from school to school, and authority to authority. Some find themselves working one-to-one with a needy child in the traditional manner, but for others, the role is more flexible.
Some schools assign assistants to a special needs department or a subject faculty, where they are deployed as needed, building up their knowledge in that area. In some authorities, specialised assistants are employed by a central support service and work peripatetically.
Leicester City special needs support service, for instance, includes five behaviour support assistants on its staff. They are former teaching assistants trained by the service and allocated to schools for periods ranging from six weeks to six months. In school, they may work with individuals or groups of children, or help other assistants by modelling different ways of supporting the children. Some are taking part in the regional pilot of the National Programme for Specialist Leaders of Behaviour and Attendance, and one is co-ordinating a group of newly-developed nurture groups in Leicester for children with special needs.
This approach offers excellent professional development for the assistants, as well as specialised help for schools, says Janice Warren, head of the support service. "It means we have consistency because we train and retain the staff, and the schools get consistency in the service we provide."
FIND THE RIGHT TRAINING
Teaching assistants looking to further their careers need to sift carefully through a wide variety of national and local qualifications and training programmes. In the past, they may have taken short standalone courses in fields that interested them, but there is now more emphasis on accredited courses, which enable assistants to build towards more substantial qualifications and even degrees.
Some local authorities run the DfES induction programme for new teaching assistants. This four-day course concentrates on literacy and numeracy, but includes a brief look at behaviour management and special needs. Assistants are encouraged to observe the way children learn, identifying those who may be struggling to grasp concepts. For their course case study, assistants often choose to write about a child with special needs.
There are two national programmes run by local authorities that have a general scope: the specialist teaching assistant course and the new higher level teaching assistant (HLTA) course. The specialist course takes half-a-day per week for a year. Its main thrust is literacy and numeracy, with an opportunity to look in more detail at a particular aspect of special needs, such as autism, dyslexia or behaviour.
To gain the higher level status, assistants are assessed against a set of 31 standards, and can, if they choose, undertake a 50-day training route to bring them up to the required level.
"HLTA training is a an excellent opportunity for assistants who have worked mainly one-to-one with pupils to extend their skills and begin to look at the needs of children with special needs in a class setting," says Mandy Bowler, special needs adviser for Surrey School Support Service, one of the 36 higher level training providers. "With HLTA status, they would potentially be equipped to manage a class or large group without a teacher present."
In addition to these national programmes, many regions provide courses that are tailored to work with children with special needs. In Northamptonshire, for example, University College Northampton offers a certificate in learning support that focuses on literacy and numeracy in special needs.
Another example is a course designed to prepare assistants to support inclusion that is run by Learning Excellence at Lancashire County Council, in conjunction with the University of Central Lancashire.
Alison Halliwell, teacher adviser for special needs and inclusion at Learning Excellence, says assistants choose five units on aspects of inclusion, each consisting of two days' training, and their work can be matched to skills required for National Vocational Qualifications. It is possible to go on to a Certificate in Higher Education (equivalent to the first year of a degree), and progress to a full degree.
"Assistants are now seen as an integral part of the workforce," she says.
These qualifications can help make them indispensable.