Colleges are admitting that they are being forced to offer less vigorous training courses to classroom assistants because of Government finding cuts.
They are developing short, inexpensive courses for the assistants following doubts over the future of a three-year-old government training scheme.
Two thousand staff who work with teachers in infant schools have completed specialist teacher assistant (STA) courses, which were launched in 1994 after the Government abandoned its plans for a "mum's army" of classroom labour.
Ten FE colleges were among an initial group of 40 training providers. They were paid by the Department for Education and Employment to run the courses, which involve candidates attending one day a week for 30 weeks.
Although 2,000 staff are due to take part in the scheme over the next two years, some colleges have been hit by last year's switch of funding to local authority budgets. Colleges that failed to team up with an LEA bidding for DFEE cash were forced to abandon STA training.
Bridgwater College, which has trained 31 STAs during the past two years, had to drop its scheme last summer.
At present, there are no STA courses available in Somerset. Instead, the college set up a course focusing on special needs which was accredited by Edxecel.
Senior tutor Pat Issac says the new course is less academically rigorous than the STA scheme. "For many teaching assistants, the STA course was set at a very high level," she said. It was also quite expensive because it involved working in partnerships with schools."
Bradford College was reluctant to become involved in training STAs because of controversy over their role in schools. Having established a scheme last year, the college dropped it after only 12 months because Bradford Council did not gain DFEE funding.
The college still offers training to classroom assistants under a scheme run with a local numeracy and literacy project. It also runs a shorter course for learning support assistants that work with SEN pupils.
"We are trying to provide a wide range of courses depending on the needs of classroom assistants and their level of commitment within the school," said Barry Miller, the college's head of teaching studies.
Government figures suggest there are at least 25,000 classroom assistants working in primary schools. A recent report by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers claims that training should be tightened up.
Janet Moyles, joint author of the ATL report, says schools accept that STA courses improve the skills of support staff, but teachers want more time to offer them proper supervision in the classroom.
Doncaster College, which is in its second year of running STA courses, has meanwhile been warned by its LEA that funds could dry up after 1998 once DFEE pump-priming comes to an end.
"We were wondering where the money is going to come from," said course leader David Hughes.
Eighteen candidates are on the course this year, and the college does not expect to have trained more than 50 STAs over the three-year period.
"Considering the number of classroom assistants in the authority, that's a very small number." said Mr Hughes.