Poor tactics let down mums' army

31st March 2000 at 01:00
Classroom assistants can be a great asset, says Mel Ainscow, but bad practice means that many may be doing more harm than good.

THE "mums' army" has finally arrived. Local education authorities are now spending millions on unqualified classroom assistants.

In many ways this development should be welcomed. The idea of having extra adults to work alongside teachers is a good one. But in practice it is

creating some worrying trends.

Recently, for example, I was told how one primary pupil spends most of each morning outside his classroom being "taught" by an assistant. When he returns he is seen by his classmates as a visitor.

My colleagues and I analysed the impact of assistants' work in a secondary school.

In the art class, we found an assistant completing paintings for two pupils with special needs who were absent. Another group in the same class received no support and spent most of the lesson talking. The assistant had been told to concentrate solely on the "targeted" pupils.

Our impression was that, while pupils with special needs were doing broadly the same things as their classmates, the helper's constant presence meant that they actually faced fewer challenges. For example, the assistant might hold the paper for a pupil with a physical impairment or write for one experiencing learning difficulties.

Carol, a pupil with Down's syndrome, was observed in several lessons. In many ways, she participated fully. With heavy support, she also "completed" all the set tasks, but some of them appeared to hold little meaning for her.

Of course, the assistant's constant presence may be reassuring for a pupil. And we saw how it could stimulate more interactions between classmates. However, the assistant also often acted as a barrier between young people with special needs and other pupils - especially when assistants elected to group supported pupils together.

This encouraged these pupils to talk to and seek help from the assistant rather than from one another or the teacher.

Having an assistant means that the teacher is less responsible for pupils with special needs. He or she can continue with the lesson as usual, knowing that their needs will be dealt wth by the assistant. Thus it becomes less likely that practice will be changed to encourage their full participation.

Schools must develop policies to avoid these traps. For example, in one secondary we know, each assistant is attached to a particular subject department, and becomes a valued member of the staff team.

Recently I watched a Year 2 lesson in an inner-city primary school where a teacher and an assistant worked well together. At the start of the lesson the

children were all sitting on the carpet. The teacher addressed the whole class, asking for suggestions on what they would do when they were 99.

Lots of interesting ideas were generated, such as: "I would eat loads of ice cream and jelly." During this time, the assistant sat at the back of the group, occasionally joining in the discussion.

Eventually the children moved to their tables where they sat in groups working on individual writing tasks. As they started work the teacher began talking intensively with a group who she felt needed more help. Meanwhile, the assistant moved around the other five groups, encouraging and helping them, and keeping an overall eye on the class.

After about 10 minutes the two colleagues exchanged roles, with the teacher moving to work with the whole class and the assistant concentrating on the group needing most help. All this occurred in a relaxed and fluent way, suggesting that the two had established a good understanding of how they could collaborate to give pupils maximum support.

It seems, then, that unqualified assistants can indeed foster more effective learning. But this will not be achieved by attaching them to individual pupils in ways that simply create new forms of segregation in our schools.

Professor Mel Ainscow is research dean in the faculty of education at the University of Manchester Education researchers who wish to disseminate their findings in The TES should send summaries of no more than 750 words to David Budge, Research Editor, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Tel 020 7782 3276. E-mail: David.Budge@tes.co.uk 'The assistant often acted as a barrier between young people with special needs and other pupils'

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