Learning assistants training to become teachers after years in the classroom -usually working-class women - don't get the same incentives as graduates, writes Martin Whittaker.
Erica Bailey has had enough of low wages, filing, and paperwork; they were not what she went into the classroom for. So she enrolled on an innovative degree course in primary education which has been specially designed for teaching assistants.
The 41-year-old mother of two young children from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, works a four-day week in a primary school and earns just pound;450 a month, a little above the minimum wage. "Originally I was just another pair of hands in the classroom," she says. "But more and more teaching assistants are covering all the admin side of running the classroom: the filing and the paperwork side, which is not what I went into it for.
"I felt that I was gradually taking more and more responsibility in the classroom, and actually teaching groups of children. I felt I should be paid more, and the only way was to qualify as a teacher."
But one of the hardest lessons of Mrs Bailey's career change is the apparent unfairness of the system of incentives and training salaries. She and others on her course, some of whom have many years' experience in the classroom, look ruefully at trainees on the graduate teacher programme who get a grant of up to pound;4,000 to cover training costs and can earn pound;13,000 while they are training.
Mrs Bailey received no assistance with her pound;550-a-year fee last year for the course at Oxford Brookes university. This year Buckinghamshire County Council has paid pound;39 towards the fees.
However, the course allows her to work in school four days a week and to attend university on a Thursday. "My school is very supportive," she says.
"They do give me time within my working hours to carry out the work-based tasks I need to do for my course."
"But for some people on our course, their schools don't allow them to do that. They do a three-day week and go into school on a Friday, in their own time, to carry out their work-based tasks."
Fellow student teacher and primary teaching assistant Helen McCammond also finds the system unfair. "What I find quite galling is the experience that I have is ongoing because we are work-based," she says. "We are with children for three days a week in the classroom.
"Yet you get trainee teachers on graduate teacher programmes who come in to school after having spent a week in college and they are let loose to teach a class. And they are being paid for the privilege. Their course is paid for and they are paid to do it.
"We had a GTP teacher at school whose degree is in philosophy and you think 'What!', while there's one woman on our course who has been in the classroom for 15 years. The experience she has is phenomenal."
The complaints of these teaching assistants-turned-student-teachers have added potency when set against recent reports that millions of pounds spent on golden hellos and training salaries have been wasted - researchers found they were going to people who were likely to have entered the profession anyway.
The typical classroom assistant is a working-class woman in her forties who has not experienced higher education. According to a study by the Local Government Association, many of them are carers - for either children or elderly people. Schools often have training programmes for them, but there is no clear career structure so very few see themselves progressing towards teaching. The lack of incentives - finding course fees to qualify - does not help.
Those who do qualify as teachers are likely to qualify very well-trained.
The course at Oxford Brookes was launched four years ago and is believed to have been the first of its kind in the United Kingdom. It is a challenging four years that combines work-based study with day release, Saturday schools and intensive days' study during summer holidays. Successful completion gains you qualified teacher status.
It began because of interest by Oxfordshire education authority in supporting teaching assistants who wished to move on and gain qualified teacher status. According to Cliff Marshall, senior tutor for admissions, the course produces high-quality, well-motivated teachers with a good track record in gaining jobs at the end of it. A high proportion gain teaching jobs in the school that employed them as assistants. "We have found they are very high-quality students and do very well on the course," he says.
The Teacher Training Agency has now been given responsibility for training school support staff. Earlier this year it announced the first training providers offering courses and assessment for higher level teaching assistants. HLTA is not a qualification, but a recognition that a teaching assistant is operating competently against a set of national standards defined by the agency.
Some universities now offer qualifications such as certificates or diplomas of higher education specifically for teaching assistants, often developed with education authorities. These are increasingly being incorporated into foundation degrees - new employment-related higher education qualifications, designed to be flexible, for example to be studied via distance learning. There is now a wide range of foundation degrees for teaching assistants, though these are not equivalent to a full honours degree.
Alison Johnson of the Professionals Allied to Teaching union says opportunities for teaching assistants to take the step into teaching are improving, though she stresses that it is part of a general increase in professional development opportunities for support staff in schools.
"Not all teaching assistants want to become teachers," she says. "It's becoming an increasingly valued job in itself, though there are many who would say that they feel under-valued, that they are working much longer hours than they are contractually employed to. And the issue of salary is very real."
WHAT YOU NEED
To progress to qualified teacher status, applicants need to:
* Complete an undergraduate, postgraduate, or employment-based course of initial teacher training leading to qualified teacher status.
* Have at least a grade C in GCSE English and mathematics, or to have reached the equivalent standard.
* For those born on or after September 1, 1979, who want to teach in primary or middle schools, a grade C GCSE or equivalent in a science subject is also required.