Higher level teaching assistants do all the things that regular teaching assistants do - and plenty more besides. The biggest difference is that HLTAs teach classes on their own, to cover planned absences or to allow teachers time to plan and mark.
"I enjoy the extra responsibility," says Nicki Ballard, who teaches classes three afternoons a week at Radleys Primary School in Walsall. "But unlike a teacher you're not doing it all the time, so it isn't as stressful. Being an HLTA is a good compromise."
To become an HLTA you need to already be working as a TA, and you need to have the backing of your headteacher. The next step is to see how you measure up against the 33 different standards laid down by the Training and Development Agency for Schools - and set about addressing any shortcomings. When you think you tick all the boxes, you'll be required to attend a three-day preparation for assessment course that ensures you understand the professional standards, the evidence you need to submit and how the assessment process works. Finally, an assessor visits your school to interview you and your head, and perhaps a couple of your colleagues.
Most assistants say that once they have higher status, their role in school changes dramatically. "I have more confidence in myself, and teachers have more confidence in me," says Sue Rogers, an HLTA at Thorns Community College in Dudley, working in the languages and ICT faculty.
Instead of mostly supporting in class, her duties now include teaching six lessons a week on her own, team-teaching, organising French and German taster lessons at local primary schools, running after-school classes for gifted and talented children and developing the teaching of Mandarin.
"Every faculty in school now has its own HLTA," she says. "We do the extra things that teachers haven't time to do."
If you want to become an HLTA, you will need a level 2 qualification in maths and English - the equivalent of a C at GCSE. Some authorities also stipulate at least three years' experience as a teaching assistant. If you think you're capable of meeting the HLTA standards, but don't feel you're quite there yet, then universities and training providers run a range of courses to help bring you up to the required level.
There's often funding available from your local authority - and there's a real drive at the moment to encourage TAs in secondary schools to train as specialist maths or science HLTAs.
But it's not all good news. Salary for HLTAs is a thorny issue. They earn more than teaching assistants - but not much more. And there's no national scale, so the rate of pay varies around the country. So too does the number of weeks you get paid: some HLTAs are salaried all year round, but in most authorities it's term-time only, on a pro-rata basis.
"The money doesn't really reflect the importance of the job," admits Ms Rogers. "And being paid only during the term seems a little unfair because most HLTAs take work home with them and spend time doing research in the holidays. After all, if you're going to be standing in front of a class on your own, you need to be well prepared."
Another problem is the lack of an obvious career path, so that once you have HLTA status, it can be difficult to gain further promotion. "The only real step up is to become a teacher," says Ms Rogers. "And if you don't have a degree, that's a long process. But I love my job just as it is, and everyone here agrees that HLTAs have made a huge difference to the school."
Next week: School librarian
WHERE YOU STAND
- Salary: Typically Pounds 16,000 to Pounds 18,000, but may be as high as Pounds 22,000. It's not unheard of for schools to pay HLTAs the same rate as ordinary TAs, except for the hours when they are teaching a whole class.
- Next steps: The HLTA scheme is overseen by the Training and Development Agency for Schools. Visit www.tda.gov.uksupportsupport_staff_roleslearningsupportstaff. Also check out the website of Best Practice Network, a regional provider for HLTA assessment, www.bestpracticenet.co.ukhlta.html.
- Key quality: Flexibility. There are times when you have to take charge; others when you're there to support.