Passing the big ten test

9th April 2004 at 01:00
Before deciding if you agree with workforce remodelling, ask yourself one crucial question

I've spent some time recently, in various settings, listening to primary heads and teachers debating the Government's workforce remodelling programme. And, boy, can they debate it. They're so good at it that I end up feeling like that chap in the pub in The Fast Show who hesitantly agrees with whatever the last person in the group says, bending from one extreme to the other.

Nobody, it has to be said, is too worried about the first phase - the removal from teachers of the "24 Forbidden Tasks" (photocopying, putting up displays, collecting money and so on). That happened on schedule in most places.

No, the real sticking point is to do with the status and role of the teaching assistant - and in particular, the guidance saying that the new higher-level teaching assistant can, if the head is happy, be left in sole charge of a class. It is upon this ground that you start to discern the classic encounter between the irresistible force and the immovable object.

At first glance it is a straightforward battle of pragmatism versus principle. The pragmatists look beyond what they see as Luddite doubts and embrace the clear practical management advantages of giving teaching assistants charge of classes. Those who cleave to principle, however, profess staunch refusal to be seduced by short-term benefits.

It is not difficult to see the argument for being able to put a TA in charge of a class. For short-term absence cover for example, the TA knows the school, the children and the systems. Heads like this, and they'll tell you it's simply not the case that children get a poor deal.

The following quote sums up the position of many: "My experience is that the children are better off with their own excellent TA, someone familiar with what they're supposed to be doing, than they would be if I took pot luck with a supply teacher who doesn't know the school or the children."

It is also plainly attractive to be able to use TAs to achieve flexibility of organisation - freeing the special educational needs co-ordinator or a subject leader to do a lesson observation for example. And there are primary schools already where key stage 1 "storytime", in the last half hour of the day is routinely taken by the TAs while the teachers meet together for planning or professional development.

That is the pragmatic argument. On the other side of the coin, opposition typically starts by acknowledging that TAs already ease the teachers' load - taking on many of the "24 tasks", contributing to planning and working with groups and individuals. Nobody objects to giving them more recognition for this through status, or a career structure, or more pay. It is just that to many heads and governors, the policy of having a qualified teacher for each class of 30 or fewer, with good support from trained TAs, does seem like a proven and effective way of running a primary school.

Here's another representative quote: "As a profession, we've worked over the years to ensure that we have an all-graduate teaching force, and to keep pupil- teacher ratios within sensible bounds."

Were that unequivocally embedded, most heads would be entirely welcoming of the arguments about teamwork and flexibility of grouping and supervision.

In the end it seems clear that this is more about naked mistrust than high-minded principle. There's a feeling that although the workload agreement says "teachers and support staff are not interchangeable" what is really going on might be an attempt to lay the foundations for a cheaper education service. Our leaders are very business-minded these days, and history shows us that, faced with skill shortages, the conventional business response has always been to avoid the costs of scarcity by making the job itself easier to do.

Some of the stuff that has come from the Government has not helped by going on about efficiency savings, and flying kites about very big classes run by one teacher and a team of TAs. (Last term there briefly emerged the ultimate "blue sky thinking" suggestion that perhaps the head could be the only permanent qualified teacher on the staff.

This was described by TES editor Bob Doe in this paper on December 5 as "the barmy proposal for schools without teachers".

Nobody wants TAs to revert to their old paintbrush cleaning role. As the National Association of Head Teachers general secretary David Hart said in January: "I am sure there is a real role for higher-level teaching assistants but there has to be a much more sensible professional debate that articulates this role to the satisfaction of heads."

Given that, he continues that "an appropriate mix of teachers and support staff will do the trick".

And again, one quote sums up the feeling of many: "Look here. I've scribbled a list of all 10 education secretaries since 1979. Ponder them, remember what some of them thought of teachers, and tell me that no future government or minister won't use workforce remodelling as a licence to replace teachers with assistants on pound;10 an hour."

The 10 education secretaries since 1979 are Mark Carlisle, Keith Joseph, Kenneth Baker, John MacGregor, Kenneth Clarke, John Patten, Gillian Shephard, David Blunkett, Estelle Morris and Charles Clarke.

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