9th June 2000 at 01:00
PROFESSOR Mel Ainscow's article on the "Mums' Army" of classroom assistants (Research Focus, TES, March 31) makes some valid points which are paralleled by my own work in a group of Sandwell primary schools.

For the past year, I have been working in these schools with six groups of unpaid parent volunteers who have enrolled as students on the college's parent volunteer plan course. This course, which I developed, is accredited by the Open College Network of the West Midlands.

Volunteers provide excellent support and are appreciated by everyone but there is no common strategy for their use.

Professor Ainscow rightly identified several cases of good practice which I have also observed. Many left me wondering how untrained people can intuitively carry out such work.

Unfortunately, a great deal of variation is also evident. Volunteers can be used to support the reading of individual children or sharpen pencils.

There is often little co-ordination or sense of partnership and, as Professor Ainscow points out, some situations give real cause for cncern. Volunteers working with special needs children are often concerned about the value and impact of their work, and of their lack of proper professional training.

Like Professor Ainscow, I would like to see some commonality of approach or a code of practice which would not reduce the pleasure they derive from what they do free of charge. They may give their time freely but they still want to be as effective as possible.

As Dr Alan Marr points out in his article (Research Focus, TES, April 28) there may be various reasons why schools feel they need more assistants and volunteers. However, the increased use of support, staff with few professional qualifications and little training, can raise concerns about quality.

The Sandwell schools I have worked with have taken the initiative because they realise that the "Mums' Army" is here to stay in some form, and that, as yet, the "generals have not yet devised a clear overall battle strategy for their deployment."

Jim Williams is a business trainer with Rowley Regis College, West Midlands.

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