Professional training benefits special needs assistants, says Gerald Haigh.
As a boy, whenever I was ineptly helping my dad to grind in the valves on the colliery manager's Austin 16, there would always come the moment when he would look up and exasperatedly suggest: "Go inside and read a book!" The point being that help from someone who does not know what to do is worse than no help at all.
Nowhere is this principle more graphically illustrated than in the mainstream classroom when a pupil with special needs is provided with some "helper time". A teacher who is already coping with 30 or more children of widely varying abilities and attitudes is asked to take another whose learning difficulties have been defined by a statement of special needs.
"It's okay," says the head, "we can have ten hours a week of a special needs assistant." But, unless from this point on there is careful management, the chances are that the teacher will be left not only integrating the pupil and planning how to deliver an individual programme of work, but also overseeing and training the assistant at the same time.
If the assistant is not resourceful, independent and sensitive, and if the three-way chemistry between pupil, teacher and assistant fails, the teacher may very well feel like telling the assistant to go away and read a book.
Assistants, therefore, need to be carefully recruited, well trained and monitored. Clearly, this is a suitable role for a local authority.
One that has grappled with it enthusiastically is Bury, which, with 72 primary and 14 secondary schools, is the sort of compact urban community in which positive action from the centre perhaps works best.
Trish Dawson, head of Bury's Learning Support Service, puts it like this: "In 1992, Bury took the bull by the horns and I was given the brief to oversee support work throughout the schools. Under LMS, it is the schools that interview and appoint the assistants, but increasingly they are using our pool of people."
Bury's policy is to recruit special support assistants who already have child-care qualifications, either NVQ, BTEC National Diploma or NNEB. Recruits then have the opportunity for further local authority training leading to the Bury Certificate of Special Educational Needs.
As well as running recruitment and training, Trish Dawson monitors and supports the work of assistants in schools. There are team training meetings across the authority, and visits to schools by Trish Dawson and her colleagues help to ensure that the people are being used to the best advantage. A booklet, Supporting Support Assistants, written for special needs co-ordinators in schools by Stephanie Lorenz, an educational psychologist who works with Bury, provides practical advice on how they can best be used.
"A good support assistant," it says, "will support not only the child or children with special educational needs, but will also play an important part in supporting their teacher." There are chapters, among others, on Roles and Responsibilities, Developing an Inclusive Timetable, Induction and Basic Training, and Supervision and Appraisal.
The last of these goes straight to an often glossed-over problem: "Some differences of opinion may occur between teacher and assistant. As the junior member of the team, the assistant may feel powerless to comment when she feels the teacher is being less than sympathetic to the child in her charge, or is making inappropriate demands. At such times, it is important that the support assistant has somewhere to turn."
The whole of the booklet shows this awareness of classroom realities. Stephanie Lorenz says that research evidence exists to show there is a need for such advice. "There may be wasting of assistant's time at two extremes - on the one hand the assistant may be sitting around because there isn't enough to do, and on the other hand the assistant may be doing too much one-to-one withdrawal work."
While having the assistant work individually with a child outside the classroom has its place, the fact that it is a relatively easy technique for the school to manage means that it can be overdone. After all, as Trish Dawson puts it: "Inclusion means inclusion in the normal classroom life of the school." Stephanie Lorenz agrees: "Parents want their children to be supported. For the teacher, this means managing other adults in the classroom."
Lowercroft Primary in Bury, with 238 pupils, shows how this can work. In the reception class, Matthew, an autistic boy, is provided with 25 hours a week of support by Debbie Commins. The task of integrating a pupil with autism into mainstream looks daunting and is not often undertaken. Autistic children, typically, do not understand social relationships, and are likely to behave in ways that are extremely difficult to handle in a mainstream class.
That Lowercroft staff are so ready to accept Matthew is in itself an indication of the confidence they have in the authority's leadership and support. The head, Sue Morse, is in no doubt about her position. "Life would be easier if I could select the children who come here, but I do not want to. My duty is to educate all children regardless of ability in the best way I can".
Matthew's integration, therefore, is a whole school issue, involving teachers, the assistant, the parents and the authority. At the time of my visit, during his first term in school, a determined effort is being made to ensure that he does not spend all of this time being withdrawn from class. His teacher, Helen Nuckley, says: "It's probably easier in the reception class because there are so many different activities on offer, and I'm used to working with other adults in the room."
Debbie Commins herself, in the moments which she is able to spare, tells me that she feels very much part of the team - she plans each day in conjunction with the teacher, and she attends all relevant review meetings. It is easy to see that in a few weeks she has become very important to Matthew's ability to cope with school life.
The move to integrate special needs pupils into the mainstream has led to a massive growth in the number of support assistant hours being worked in schools - and surveys have shown that recruits are keen to be trained and to work in a professional team. As Bury's example shows, here is yet another rewarding developmental strand in the local authority's "school improvement" role.
Supporting Support Assistants is available (Pounds 5 including postage) from Stephanie Lorenz, 26 Worsley Road, Worsley, Manchester M28 2GQ