The Government has promised 20,000 more classroom assistants by 2002 - but they will be a wasted resource unless they are involved in teaching, writes Gerald Haigh
If you put a trained assistant into a classroom to support the teacher, should the teacher feel threatened, or is her professional status enhanced? Adele Phillips, head of Oakway Infant School in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, who has studied the problem and trained assistants for her authority, is in no doubt. She believes that teachers work more effectively with support from good assistants. In turn, heads and teachers have to manage support staff properly and professionally - planning their work, giving them job descriptions, listening to them and working to their individual strengths.
Ms Phillips says: "It's no good waiting till she (an assistant) arrives and then saying, 'Oh, take John for reading'. There's too much to do these days not to use the resource properly."
She is full of admiration for her school's five assistants and has worked hard during the two years since she came to the school to change them from "helpers" into effective classroom workers. Her view is that a teaching team which sees assistants as washers of paint pots and keepers of display boards is at a different professional level from one where they are fully involved in staffroom life and classwork. "How is a classroom assistant improving the quality of education by standing at a sink for half an hour washing paint pots?" she asks.
Her views echo a report* commissioned by the National Union of Teachers from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the management consultants. This question of status - the extent to which an assistant is seen as an equal member of the team - is one of the elements which the report uses as a measure of the way that schools make use of classroom assistants .
Once upon a time, any incursion of "helpers" into classrooms was seen as a threat to teachers' professionalism and a potential way by which a government might be able to run schools more cheaply. It seems to be accepted today that where a teacher and a trained assistant work together, planning and reviewing, the assistant taking a group during part of the lesson, then the teacher's professionalism is enhanced. She becomes a manager of learning, delegating part of her work to an associate who, in turn, is able to make informed suggestions. When it works, it is a powerful combination.
The NUT found that good practice meant not only attention to status, but also having a school policy on the use of assistants, written job specifications, continuity in the way they are used as the week progresses, opportunities for them to be involved in planning, care in picking up the skills of assistants, and good management from the top - with the use of a senior assistant where a large number are employed.
Many of these essentials are in place at Oakway. "We tend to allocate assistants to year groups," says Ms Phillips. "But part of the appraisal process is to ask them how they feel and whether they would like a change."
Each of Oakway's five assistants has found what seems to be the right niche. One who expressed an interest in administration is working part time in the office, with a view to taking over when the secretary retires. Another has an aptitude for special needs and has taken several courses. Yet another is valued for her understanding of the local area and is encouraged to develop good relationships with parents.
Many authorities run accredited courses, and there is the national Specialist Teaching Assistant (STA) programme for those working in key stage 1. The advent of the literacy and numeracy initiatives has provided a sharper focus - many assistants take part in whole-school literacy training, and the Additional Literacy Support programme not only provides money for 2,000 full-time equivalent classroom assistants at key stage 2 in the coming financial year, but also training with their teachers for two days during the summer term.
The challenge for schools is to support this training and to value its results. Evidence from the STA programme is that all too often assistants return to the same low-level duties they had been doing before training. One tutor on the programme showed me a rather sad letter from a former student. "I do not feel," she writes, "that my qualification has been used to improve the school's English and maths strategiesI Although I have offered several times, never once have I been asked to read a story or take a group for reading or writing skills. I feel the attitude is 'Now you've done the course, let's get back to normal.' " Most assistants hanker for training - they are committed to the children and want to do the best they can. It is an attitude that can put some teachers on the defensive, says Ms Phillips. "A long serving teacher with nothing but a Cert Ed can feel threatened." Perhaps, a team of good assistants could motivate some teachers into thinking about their own professional development.
* *'Associate Staff Support for Teachers' is available from NUTheadquarters. Tel: 0171 388 6191
* Aggie Houghton (above) came into Oakway Infant School 12 years ago by what has been the traditional route for many classroom assistants.
"I was a mum helper," she says. "And I've been a cleaner and a dinner lady. As a classroom helper I've gradually gone up from an hour a week to full time."
She works with reception and with parents and toddlers. "The parents may come to me if they don't want to bother the head, or if they are too upset. I know most of them and I'm able to talk to them."
Ms Houghton use to particularly like dealing with difficult children. "I really liked the challenge of the children who kick and fight you. You had to find out what the problem was.
"Some of them still come back to see me."
She says, almost with a hint of regret: "There's no behaviour like that here now."
Ms Houghton has done some training, but claims not to be at all academic. "I panic if I have to write, but I'm good with children. My only real qualification is what I can do with the children."
* Before she was married, Lynne Jackson (above) rana boutique. "I had a different life then - off to London for the fashion shows. I didn't even know I was interested in children. Then when I had my own son, it opened up a new world."
Now, the Oakley classroom assistant says, "I'm passionate about how they (the children) learn and about what stops them from learning."
Under Adele Phillips's leadership, she has qualified as a specialist teaching assistant and has taken Northamptonshire's Foundation Certificate in Curriculum Studies. She attends as many special needs and information technology courses asshe can, and it is clear that she has considerable expertise in the area of special needs.
One of her responsibilities at Oakway is to run a literacy hour with a group of withdrawn children who were not coping with the whole-class approach.
"I said I couldn't stand to see it and I asked if I could take them out. Adele let me do it, even though it was just before our school inspection."
She was worried about the reaction of the inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education. But when it was all over, she realised there was nothing to be concerned about. says: "They spent a lot of time looking at the arrangement and they were very approving."
In every sense, says Ms Phillips: "Lynne is an assistant teacher."