Lab techs, remove your white coats

26th May 2006 at 01:00
SUPPORT STAFF: New training programme offers a positive path to promotion

Traditionally, when a head has spoken proudly of "my staff", he or she has meant the teachers. It's not like that now, though. One of the effects of the many changes in education over recent years has been to increase hugely the number of adults working in schools. The staff list of a 1,000-pupil specialist sports college in Birmingham, for example, shows 89 teachers and no fewer than 62 others, including technicians, teaching assistants, administrators, mentors, school sport partnership workers and premises officers.

Increasingly, these support staff have career aspirations and an entitlement to training. Consequently, the ladders and paths are opening up - we're familiar with, for example, the way that teaching assistants are becoming para-professionals, with different levels of qualification and responsibility.

The latest example of a group of support staff being given recognition and a career path is seen in Techcen. It's driven by the Design and Technology Association (Data) and the Association for Science Education (ASE) and provides a qualification pathway using NVQ at levels 1-4 for technicians.

It lines up with a four-level career structure that goes from assistant technician, through to team leader technician.

There are clear leadership challenges. Not least is that of recognition of the nature of the work and responsibilities of support staff. Andy Mitchell, assistant chief executive at Data, tells how, in some schools, the design technology department's technician will be called on for routine maintenance jobs: "It might be a child turning up to have a sole stuck back on his shoe, or a management request to mend a door or a toilet."

The assumption is that because the technician is one of the few people in the school with practical skills, it's reasonable to make these demands.

"The same thing happens when the governors get the food technician to provide tea and scones for their regular meetings," he says.

Mike Bell of ASE Inset Services, the association's professional development arm, says it's the same for science technicians. "They're sometimes thought of as fetchers and carriers, whereas it's more complicated than that. It's making sure the equipment is working and that it will do the job the teacher has in mind."

Often, he says, an experienced technician is able to give advice about the suitability of materials for an experiment, discuss health and safety issues, or suggest alternative ways of doing what the teacher wants.

Lynden Cockrill, at Sutton Coldfield girls' school in Birmingham, a pilot school for Techcen, was keen to get the message across: "Every child needs to do practical science and, without lab technicians, it's not possible for it happen."

Lynden, who is training to be an NVQ assessor, has simple and effective advice for technicians who feel their talents are overlooked: "It's that white coat. It's like a Harry Potter cloak of invisibility. I say take it off sometimes and do something different, for someone else, in another part of the school."

Part of the problem for lab techs is that they spend a lot of time in prep rooms and don't regularly meet the children. In design technology, though, it's usual to find a technician working with pupils. Teresa Centazzo, senior DT technician at Bishop Challoner RC school, in Tower Hamlets, east London, and a participant in Techcen's NVQ programme, works at a bench in a teaching area and is accustomed to pupils coming to her with problems if the teacher is busy.

"I was a draughtswoman in engineering," she says, "and I teach CadCam (computer aided design and manufacture) to a small GCSE group."

For Mike Jerome, her head of department, Teresa's an enthusiast with an engaging manner. It's easy to see that she gets on well with pupils.

"You have to consider not just her technical abilities, but her skills in relating to students," he says. "Whereas I'm an authority figure, she relates to them in a different way - it's helping them to make progress by a different route."

Mike's imaginative and supportive leadership of Teresa is a good example of how the school of the future must develop if it is to make the most of the broader range of of qualities and skills to be found in today's staffrooms.

Techcen is a web-based assessment centre with mentors and assessors in schools covering a 25-mile radius. It is being piloted in selected schools and will be nationally available from September.

Association for Science Education www.ase.org.uk; Techen - tel 02476 323232email: admin@aseinsetservices.org

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