Karen Gold reports on the rapidly expanding role and enhanced status of classroom assistants
Ten years ago it was quite interesting trying to persuade staff here to accept support in their classrooms," recalls Chris Vinall, SENCO and head of special provisions at Bay House school, a top-of-the league-table 11-18 comprehensive in Hampshire. "We started taking statemented children and the special needs assistants came with them. Some teachers felt they were an intrusion. I had to introduce it by saying 'This is a legal requirement, these children need this provision, we have no choice'. Now the teaching staff's attitude is, 'Why can't you give me more help?'" In the past 10 years Bay House has taken students with disabilities that include Down's syndrome, dwarfism, autism and Tourette's. During the same period, the number of special needs assistants at the 1,850-pupil school has grown from zero to 17. That growth almost certainly reflects a national trend. No one knows exactly how many people work in learning support - the Department for Education and Employment is unable to say - but anecdotally everyone knows that there are many more of them than there used to be. Anecdotally everyone also knows that they are substantially better qualified - even in some cases teacher-qualified - than 10 years ago.
Now new audits by the DFEE and the Local Government National Training Organisation are beginning to show not only how the quantity of learning support staff in schools has grown, but also how their role has begun to change. These audits are the starting point for a further expansion in learning support: 20,000 new recruits, not all of them full-time, by 2002. All these new staff, and all existing learning support staff, will now be called teaching assistants. They will also shortly have a new set of workplace-based qualifications, and a new national single pay scale based on a ladder of responsibilities.
Two sets of guidance for schools on how to make best use of their teaching assistants are to be published as a result of these audits. A good practice guide on supporting the teaching assistant, has already been partly produced by the DFEE. It mostly covers primary schools, with a secondary document promised soon. The other will follow the Local Government NTO's framework for skills and qualifications that teaching assistants at different levels should possess. A draft of this went to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for approval in March and should be published in the summer.
A picture is emerging from these audits and guidance of what central and local government believe schools should be asking of their teaching assistants and giving them in return. TAs, even those who are placed in the classroom to support a named, statemented child, should not simply work with one child, it suggests - that creates a kind of special needs bubble around the adult and child that does nothing to promote inclusion.
Instead, TAs should be seen as part of the teaching team that works throughout the entire school, developing expertise and autonomy - with training and support - to the fullest possible extent. It is a model that you can see, 10 years on from that initial grudging tolerance, in action at Bay House.
Today, Bay House's special needs assistants (SNAs) run extra literacy sessions for low-attaining students. They organise a lunchtime club for vulnerable students. They give each other mutual support by jointly preparing work for statemented and other children, using the school's syllabuses and schemes of work. Copies of all these are held in the school's special provisions department.
Several SNAs, funded by the school, have taken counselling courses and are informally available to give students emotional support. One has specialist dyslexia training. They attend children's statement reviews; they are represented on the school's multi-cultural working party. Of course they support children in the classroom - though one SNA is never attached to a particular child for more than one third of the week, so a dyad dependency is not created. But even then, says Chris Vinall, "I say to teachers if the SNA has been working with one or two children, don't leave them to it. Get involved; sometimes you take over with those children and let the assistant work with someone else or go round the classroom.
"Of course there are one or two staff we can't approach like this, but mostly the SNAs are able to be proactive. The teaching staff know that the teacher is responsible for the learning of every child in that room, and the SNAs are there to assist any child. And if a group of children hasn't grasped something, the SNA will say 'These children haven't got this; can you go over it again?'"
Of course TAs cannot take the initiative when they start work in the classroom, says Sue Lawrence, SENCO at Bushey Meads 11-18 comprehensive in Hertfordshire, which has a team of 16 learning support assistants (LSAs) working with the 55 statemented children as well as many others in the 1,100-pupil school. Most of these children have physical disabilities; academically they are distributed across the whole range.
"When someone first comes they tend to just be a human typewriter," she says. Even so, when she recruits LSAs she asks them to say what they might like to specialise in. They may, after all, find themselves working in an A-level class - in fact for the past two years different LSAs have taken AS-level psychology themselves, alongside the student they were supporting.
None of Bushey Meads's LSAs is allocated to particular children; instead they are allocated to subjects. One works predominantly in maths; another, a fluent linguist, in modern languages. A third has taken on IT support, and been trained to work with some of the specialist speech production equipment students use.
Putting LSAs into subject areas allows them to build up a rapport with subject staff, says Sue Lawrence. Even so, there can be tensions: "It's important that the LSA is introduced to the class, and that people think about how they want to work together. One of the problems is getting other children to accept the authority of the LSA. If the teacher is writing something on the board and a child misbehaves, what does the LSA do? Some teachers would be happy for them to stop the trouble; others wouldn't."
Bushey Meads now has a charter defining the responsibilities of teacher and LSA. It says, for example, that they should not be left alone with a class; that if they have alerted the teacher to serious misbehaviour and the teacher has not dealt with it, then they should attempt to deal with it and should inform the SENCO or a member of the school's senior management team.
These are big issues, but the biggest issue, says Sue Lawrence, is time. Even though the school gives LSAs paid time to prepare work with class teachers, the teachers cannot always find time to meet. The same is true in primary schools, says Yvonne Hargreaves-Pizer, head at Hague primary school in East London. Five years ago Hague had four teaching assistants; now it has 13. Their paid hours have been extended to begin at 8.45am or end at 3.45pm, so that they have time to plan and discuss the day's work with the teacher.
Hague also pays a teacher for half a day a week to manage and train the TAs; every Wednesday morning for an hour they all meet for training, which might include work on behaviour or memory skills. For external training they share in the school's in-service training budget; they take part in INSET days and reviewing the school development plan. Recently Yvonne Hargreaves-Pizer has begun to ask for a minimum of grade C in English and maths GCSE for new TAs, though not all those working in the school have them.
Even so, despite TA's poor hourly pay, she, like other heads, often finds recruits are better qualified than this. Bushey Meads, for example, has several graduates; Bay House has two qualified teachers among its SNAs.
That does not mean that some new TAs do not still need quite basic induction training. Even new staff who went to school in England, says Yvonne Hargreaves-Pizer , as well as those who did not, may have no idea what the national curriculum is or the kinds of behaviour and discipline policies a school may use. TAs working with literacy groups may need support with standard English; all may need confidentiality training.
The teaching staff also need training in how to manage adults in the classroom, she says: "People have to know what is expected of them. We've had several staff meetings about getting to grips with line management. It always comes back to having enough time to talk about the plans for work and the plans for the day."
But as everyone's skills develop, they flourish and benefit the school, she says: "I try to give TAs 10-20 per cent of the time on administration. They can run the class library, they can collect money, they can put up displays with teacher guidance, they can follow-up absences - the bilingual assistants are particularly good at that.
"It's good for them because they take on responsibility and feel part of the team, although you do sometimes have to deal with somebody thinking that now they are skilled they don't have to do the menial jobs any more. And the teachers think it's wonderful."
1981 Education Act introduces statementing and inclusion
1998 Government announces planned recruitment of 20,000 new teaching assistants
1999 Additional Literacy Strategy requires use of TAs with under-achieving children in Year 3
2000 DFEE guidance points to "the tremendous contribution well-managed and well-trained teaching assistants can make" in driving up standards
2001 New induction materials to be published for use by LEAs, advisers and SENCOs in four-day initial training of TAs
2001 New national standards, qualifications and pay scale for TAs to be introduced
2002 20,000 new TAs to be in schools
WORKING WITH TEACHING ASSISTANTS
* Give new teaching assistants induction training so they know what is expected of them. Do not assume they understand any jargon, or have up-to-date knowledge of schools. Give them a mentor for support
* Allocate TAs to classes or subject areas where they can develop confidence and good working relationships - ensure paid planning time for TAs and teachers, and time for them to discuss how lessons went or problems particular children had
* Ensure that TAs have opportunities for mutual support under a clear line manager
* Ensure that TAs are treated as equals in access to training and development and participate in school meetings and activities
* Offer support to classroom teachers in managing TAs
* Make sure all know their roles, aims and responsibilities, perhaps draw up a code of practice together
* Always introduce the TA to the class and make their status clear
* Be sensitive to hourly payment; the rates may be so low that offering to pay for TAs to stay for a staff meeting may not be worth it. They may also have family responsibilities
* Store syllabuses and schemes of work so they are easily accessible for TAs to consult
* Play to TAs' strengths. Treat them as partners; give them time and training; see them as an asset to the school
Four days a week Nicola Davies is a learning support assistant at Brunswick nursery school in Cambridge. On the fifth day she is the school's SENCO. Her double role came about nine years after she joined Brunswick as a two-hours-a-day LSA, with no experience either of early years or special needs.
She was simply a qualified and experienced secondary history teacher who wanted to restart work after 20 years bringing up a family.
By the end of the first year, she says, she was being encouraged to develop new ideas for integrating the statemented children with severe physical and learning disabilities that Brunswick includes in its mainstream annual intake.
Since then the school, which shares its training and appraisal budget between all staff, has paid for her to attend introductory and specialist courses culminating in a part-time early years advanced diploma.
When the 0.2 teacher moved on last year, Mrs Davies was offered the job combined with the SENCO role. Her main responsibilities are children's individual education plans, and leading other LSAs - "though we all work as a team here" - including Brunswick's long-established cook, who has recently become an LSA, learned Maketon and is considering making the substantial jump to an NVQ.
Alistair Coupar's main claim to fame is that he, together with Bushey Meads pupils Shaz Hossain and Khizer Mahmood, invented a game of wheelchair football.
Mr Coupar came to the school in 1997 after a career as a sales rep and publican; his wife is a teacher and he wanted to spend more time with their young children. Unlike some Bushey Meads LSAs he does not specialise in particular academic subjects, but he does have a powerful rapport with a group of wheelchair-using boys. They started playing football in the gym at lunchtime; they wrote rules, set up a website, gained sponsorship from Watford Football Club. Now they need opposing teams, to establish a league.
Mr Coupar has taken on an evening job as theatre licensee to boost the family income, but will not give up the learning support that means so much to him and his team: "I've been able to use my initiative from the start; it's easier in some lessons than others, but where you have a good relationship with the teacher you can do a good job with the students."
* To find out more about wheelchair football visit www.geocities.comwheelchairfootball