Exploited 'because they are women'

9th April 2004 at 01:00
Teaching assistants are strongly valued for their professionalism and skills but "brutally undervalued in terms of their pay and conditions".

Jo Barkham, senior lecturer in education at the University of the West of England in Bristol, told a language and literacy conference at Jordanhill that low pay and poor conditions are signs that what assistants do is often overlooked.

It can be seen as "only a step away" from what mothers do for nothing as they bring "the undervalued skills of motherhood" into the classroom.

Mrs Barkham did not claim that her findings can be generalised but her conclusions from a survey in England resonate strongly in the climate of the current Scottish nursery nurses dispute.

She said: "The stories told by the classroom assistants may represent a continuation of an undervaluing of (what is classed as) women's work. These are ongoing examples of the exploitation of women whose perceived primary role is that of housewife and mother, being used to the advantage of an education system which recognises the importance of their role, yet rewards them so poorly in terms of financial recognition and job security."

Sheila Hughes, senior lecturer in English at Strathclyde University, told a workshop that a narrower curriculum increased pressure on teachers to "teach to the test". Initial findings from a study into how children progress as writers as they move from primary to secondary shows that this may be having a serious effect.

Attempts to improve test results could also lead to teachers inadvertently providing too much support, creating a culture of dependence rather than independence on the part of the pupil.

"Being able to write independently would be an indicator of how much the pupil has progressed," Mrs Hughes said.

Progression in writing skills was also hampered by secondary and primary teachers having a lack of awareness of the expectations and methodology in the "other" sector.

This could lead to a blame culture where each sector blames the other. In fact, there are external factors working against both, Mrs Hughes said, namely the impact of transition itself.

Her concerns about assessment were supported by Caroline Downie, an English teacher at Kyle Academy in Ayr, who is currently studying the use of formative assessment in the writing of English as part of a chartered teacher programme.

She told The TES Scotland: "I feel that formative assessment is one of the strategies we need to use more to raise attainment in English writing and this presentation today has reconfirmed my view."

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