Clear challenge of blurred boundaries

6th December 2002 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh visits a middle school where they are thinking carefully about the dividing lines between teachers and learning assistants

SAust where is the boundary between teaching and not teaching? Rhona Seviour, head of the 520-pupil Greneway middle school in Royston, Hertfordshire, is one of many heads who are grappling with this conundrum.

The issue is high on the agenda now that teaching assistants are to be given an enhanced role in the classroom. "There needs to be careful thinking about where the boundaries are," she says. "At the moment we're all making it up as we go along."

Rhona Seviour is an enthusiast for the way that learning support assistants (LSAs), as they are called at Greneway, can enhance the work of the teacher. When she arrived at the school seven years ago there were none. Now there are 12 - an unusually large number in a nine-to-13 middle school of its size.

"The original belief was that only teachers should be involved with children in the classroom," Seviour says. "It took a long time to win people over, and it was the quality of the LSAs that did the trick - their effectiveness in working with young people."

At the same time, Rhona Seviour has always been careful to ensure that teachers and assistants understand and respect their respective roles, an approach that demands frankness and trust. "For example," she says, "we were discussing small group work - a teaching assistant working in an adjoining area to the class with a group of children. One of the LSAs said that she didn't feel able to prepare the work for the group. The teacher said that she would do the preparation. Then the assistant said: 'But what if I'm not happy with the work you've prepared?'" Two points arise: one is that it is clearly difficult to draw a line between the professional work of the teacher and the "non-professional" work of the LSA. An experienced assistant will want to at least have a hand in planning and delivery, if not lead the learning process. It is neither practical nor desirable to stand in the way of that; to do so is to risk having LSAs question why they are being offered training.

More important, though, is the fact that Rhona Seviour has built an ethos at Greneway within which colleagues can openly discuss their concerns. "It's about relationships," she says. "We're all prepared to try things out and learn from them. It's clear that unless schools can explore the relationship between teachers and LSAs and sit down to tackle grey areas within their own contexts, then you will have friction and people will feel threatened."

Rhona Seviour has an LSA with her when she teaches ICT. "She knows more about it than I do, so there are times when I'll stand back and let her take over." The head teacher will not, as a point of principle, leave the room when that happens. But it is easy to see how a busy head might take the opportunity to nip to the office and make some calls, and it is another example of how difficult it is to draw boundaries.

There are plenty of similar examples. There are schools where assistants take Circle Time, for example, or read the story. Does the teacher stay in? Does she join the session, or keep busy at the back of the room? And what does all this mean in professional or legal terms? It is not surprising that Rhona Seviour's point about "making it up as we go along" is repeated when you discuss this with other heads and teachers.

Ms Seviour invests a lot of her time in the professional development of her LSAs. Each one has attended the four-day course for teaching assistants run by the local authority and she has a one-hour session with them each week. These cover general issues such as physical restraint, child protection, special learning needs and testing, as well as individual children's needs.

She is adamant that LSAs should be treated as full members of the teaching team and be included in meetings and staff training sessions. "If that involves them in working longer hours, then we pay them to attend," she says.

The school has a handbook that covers the work of LSAs and provides guidelines for how teachers and assistants can work together. That may not be unusual, but it is significant that Greneway's handbook was written by the LSAs themselves.

LSAs at Greneway also have a lot of say in how they are deployed. Some are happy to take groups out of class, while others prefer to stay in the room, for instance. They also have the opportunity to gravitate to a subject specialism, or to follow a particular child or group through the school.

Greneway's LSAs are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds. At least two are parents of children with special needs, motivated by the desire to build on their experience. Some are graduates, one is a midwife and three are qualified teachers who have chosen to stay in school but have less responsibility.

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