Now we can get on with the teaching

14th March 2003 at 00:00
Classroom assistants are a step in the right direction for secondary schools, says Bill Boyd

LAST month saw the arrival in our school of five new classroom assistants, bringing the total to seven, which is a ratio of roughly one assistant to 12 teachers, or an assistant for every two departments.

This influx comes after a largely successful pilot scheme, during which time we have enjoyed the services of two very positive, hard-working and enthusiastic women (only one of our new recruits will be male), and is something which will be welcomed almost universally by the school community.

The significant increase in our allocation of classroom assistants is one of the consequences of A Teaching Profession for the 21st Century, and the success of the pilot scheme, especially in the primary sector, has prompted the local authority to alter quite radically the staffing profile in all its schools.

Let's be churlish for a moment, and offer a few words of caution. The experience of the past year has taught us that the role of the classroom assistant in the secondary school is likely to be quite different from that of the primary school helper, which will not come as any great surprise to anyone.

While the primary assistant spends much of her time in the classroom, raising the kind of issues relating to status which have surfaced south of the border, I suspect that her secondary equivalent will see little of the inside of a classroom, at least in the short-term, for the needs of a secondary school are quite different.

What principal teachers in particular have long been crying out for is what amounts to a departmental secretary or clerical assistant, someone who will organise teaching materials, keep track of pupil progress and generally free the teacher to concentrate on learning and teaching issues. This is largely the role which classroom assistants in the secondary sector will be expected to perform, and it should be made clear to prospective applicants that this is the case. Those who imagine that they will be co-operative or substitute teachers should think again.

But the temptations for cash-strapped authorities are obvious, and this, along with a chronic teacher shortage in England, has led more than one politician to think that they have found the perfect solution. If the cost of one fully qualified teacher is roughly equivalent to the "salary" of three classroom assistants, what is the most cost-effective way of improving the adult-pupil ratio in schools? You will not have failed to notice the linguistic sleight of hand in the previous sentence, borrowed directly from the Scottish Executive.

Nor was the wording of the McCrone report particularly helpful in describing assistants, quite ambiguously, as "para-professionals", raising expectations in a way which could lead to frustration all round. If indeed the classroom assistants are to be regarded as professionals, and why not, then an annual salary of just above the minimum wage, and an entry requirement of Standard grade English at General level or equivalent, are perhaps not the best indicators of excellence. In reality, most of the 120 or so applicants we had for five positions were educated far beyond the minimum requirements, including at least one with a first-class university degree.

It could also be argued that the appointment of departmental, or even faculty, secretaries would have been a more effective use of resources.

When our departments were asked recently how they had employed their classroom assistant, and what further tasks they would envisage if the time was increased threefold, the collated responses produced a list of more than 40 tasks, only four of which involved direct contact with pupils.

Assistants will make a tremendous difference to the efficiency and smooth running of the school, and their presence may ultimately raise the attainment of pupils. But they will not significantly reduce the workload of teachers, and it would be unfair to expect that of them. Only an increase in non-contact time and a reduction in class sizes will alter that. As far as principal teachers are concerned, it is possible that their workload will increase initially, as the assistants' remit is managed and developed .

What the introduction of classroom assistants will do almost immediately, however, is allow teachers' energies to be channelled more directly into lesson planning and delivery, which at the very least is a step in the right direction.

Bill Boyd is assistant head of Prestwick Academy.

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