Plans to recruit up to 5,000 classroom assistants over the next three years could be in trouble as one potential source of recruits appears to have dried up.
The national working group established by the Scottish Office to introduce the scheme is still wrestling with a job description for the new posts, a task made more difficult by the revelation that assistants can expect a salary of no more than #163;7,000 a year.
This compares with pay levels of almost #163;12,000 for nursery nurses,hitherto regarded by local authorities as a natural source of assistants to work alongside primary teachers. Recruitment has also run into opposition from Unison, which represents many of the country's 2,500 nursery nurses (full-time equivalent numbers).
The assumption had been that the Scottish Office plan to have up to 5, 000 classroom assistants in place by 2002 at a cost of Pounds 66 million would equate to a salary of around #163;13,000.
But David Henderson, head of policy development at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, told Cosla's education forum in Inverness last week: "The money available and the suggested number of posts implies a salary of no more than #163;7,000 a year which restricts the nature of the job."
This is because the scheme builds up gradually and the final figure of 5,000 new assistants is reached in 2002 when the sum of money available is #163;36 million. Potential salary levels are reduced further by the amount which has to be set aside for national insurance and pension costs, training and central administration.
Mr Henderson represents the local authorities on the Scottish Office working group along with Keir Bloomer, director of education in Clackmannanshire. Mr Bloomer thought the Government had "boxed itself into a corner".
He believes there will be no more money, while reducing the number of assistants to increase salaries is also unlikely because ministers are publicly committed to the target ratio of one adult to every 15 primary pupils by 2002.
The Scottish Office had made it clear that the new "para-professionals" are not just intended to relieve teachers of non-teaching burdens but to help out with activities such as paired reading and marking tests. "The problem is that the further along the continuum towards education you go, the greater the salary people would expect," Mr Bloomer said.
The first signs of irritation with the local authorities' targeting of nursery nurses for the assistants' posts has come in Glasgow. Unison, which called a meeting attended by 200 of the 700 nursery nurses in the city, supports the creation of classroom assistants but says nursery nurses are already fulfilling a professional role. Carole Ball, a nursery nurse at Kinning Park nursery in Glasgow and Unison's education convener in the city, told the meeting: "We are direct educators. We do not assist - we deliver."
The union's view is a mirror image of the concerns voiced by the General Teaching Council and the Educational Institute of Scotland. Both fear assistants will encroach on the work of teachers.
Glasgow EIS has complained that the city's pilot programme for classroom assistants requires them to keep pupils "on task", carry out "routine drill and practice reinforcement", and assist with writing and number work.
This would lead to "erroneous and even counter-productive methodology and give credence to the misplaced notion that teaching small children does not require highly skilled professional staff", Glasgow EIS states.