Classroom assistants want a route to qualify as teachers, says Susannah Kirkman
What many classroom assistants really want is to qualify as teachers using a part-time training route which allows them to carry on working, according to research at Southampton University.
A Career Ladder for Classroom Assistants, which was commissioned by the Teacher Training Agency, reveals that almost half the classroom assistants surveyed wanted to become teachers when they realised that part-time training was available, while the rest wanted more effective training in their current role.
Keith Smith, principal researcher of the report, says: "The employment-based route is attractive to classroom assistants because most of them can't afford to leave their jobs to train."
The Government has made it clear that it wants to encourage classroom assistants to become teachers. But current training militates against the typical classroom assistant - usually a woman in her thirties or forties with few formal qualifications and usually with a family.
Trudy McAuley of Westminster College, Oxford, says: "The Government says it wants to attract classroom assistants into teaching, but the Department for Education and Employment is making things exceptionally difficult for us."
The college offers a four-year work-based BEd for classroom assistants which is funded as a full-time course by the TTA. However, because the course is spread over 36 weeks to allow students to continue working, the DFEE doesn't recognise it as full-time.
As a result, several students are in dire financial straits as they are being forced to pay tuition fees and are not eligible for benefits such as council tax rebates; one woman has three part-time jobs so that she can make ends meet.
Trudy McAuley would also like more flexibility in entry requirements for classroom assistants. "We have to make sure that people who never had the chance to finish their qualifications get the chance to show what they can do," she says. "When I compare these classrooom assistants to the typical BEd undergraduate, I am impressed by their motivation and their understanding of children."
The TTA wants to encourage more colleges to offer employment-based training, such as the course at Edge Hill College of Higher Education. In partnership with Lancashire education authority and schools, Edge Hill offers a four-year part-time degree course for classroom assistants.
Those wishing to qualify as teachers can then do a one-year PGCE or join the Graduate Registered Teacher Programme. So far 30 classroom assistants have used this route and all now have teaching jobs.
Part-time modular-based PGCEs could be another option for people who have managed to complete a first degree. But above all, the TTA is hoping that all teacher-training providers will agree on a coherent system of credits for previous experience and qualifications.
The knock-on effects of a streamlined training structure could be enormous, leading to proper contracts and better pay, according to Dr Peter Farrell of Manchester University. He is carrying out a national survey for the DFEE which has found huge variations in pay and conditions of service for the learning support assistants who work with children with special needs.
Reform is long overdue, agrees John Coe, a spokesman for the National Association for Primary Education. "Many classroom assistants are functioning as teachers during the literacy hour yet they are not paid as such or trained enough," he says.
'A Career Ladder for Classroom Assistants' is available from the TTA, Portland House, Stag Place, London SW1E 5TT. tel 0171 925 3700