Move to the higher ground ends in tears

8th October 2004 at 01:00
I have an identity crisis. I am variously referred to as a "welfare assistant", "learning support assistant" or, more recently, "teaching assistant". When I heard the Government planned to introduce a new title, I felt a quiver of excitement. It sounded so grand: higher level teaching assistant.

Interested parties met at a local arts centre to hear what was on offer. In the first five minutes our quivers of excitement were stilled. In no uncertain terms we were told that the higher level teaching assistant (HLTA) carried no qualification, no award and no monetary benefit.

I looked around. Had I fallen into a farce? No. There were several dozen serious faces staring down at the speaker. We were informed that we would receive "status". According to my dictionary, that means "social position and prestige".

I have worked for several years in a job that demands a high level of professionalism, often working with very vulnerable children. The salary is minuscule in comparison with other professionals. Status was never a consideration when I decided to take on my role. This newly bestowed "status" -with no qualification, no award and no monetary benefit - also meant we would be expected to stand in for teachers. A surreal feeling began to wash over me.

We were told we would need to prove our qualifications to become an HLTA.

Women who had taken their O-levels while the Beatles were topping the charts looked confused as they did a quick mental recce of their houses, fiercely trying to remember when they last saw their exam certificates.

One anxious woman said she had been working with children for 15 years, but had no maths GCSE. Without hesitation, she was told she could not be considered until she took a maths GCSE or equivalent. She looked crestfallen. Probably forging her way to her half-century, she was abruptly told she wasn't quite good enough any more.

At a coffee break, disillusioned women stood around wondering why they had embarked on such a ludicrous journey. Disenchantment was enveloping even the stalwarts. The coffee suddenly tasted bitter.

Later, I decided to write to Education Secretary Charles Clarke. The idea that I should usurp my colleagues and stand in front of a class left me with an uncomfortable feeling. Someone from the Department of Education and Skills school workforce unit replied, but I felt no wiser after reading the letter. It said we would not be seen as "substitute teachers". Substitute in my understanding means "taking the place of another"; I am not sure which dictionary the workforce unit uses.

In a moment of madness, and not just to prove I have the determination to present a professional front, I decided to apply to become an HLTA. A board was due to sit and discuss applications. My wonderful, overworked Senco generously took time out to help me fill in my form, and gave me a glowing reference.

My qualifications - including one in numeracy from a BTec business studies course - were to A-level standard and could have gained me entry to university in the late 1970s. But my numeracy qualification was apparently unacceptable for the HLTA post. The refusal came the day after the board sat.

At least I have solved my identity crisis. Now I know exactly where I stand. I have a new title - HLTA reject 0062.

Marian Colyer Marian Colyer is a teaching assistant in Buckinghamshire

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