Should we finance more TAs?

12th August 2005 at 01:00
Should schools invest in classroom support or employ more teachers? An award-winning teaching assistant and a teachers' leader battle it out.

Below, TES readers offer their views

YES - says Judith Howes

I support the learning and teaching of ICT within a primary school, and work closely with the ICT co-ordinator, all the children and staff. The children's perception is that "Mrs Howes knows everything about computers".

I wish I did.

All primary teachers have skills, experience and expertise that they bring to the curriculum but they are not experts at everything. There are specific areas that can be developed with the support of specialist people.

As an ICT specialist I have a more detailed overview of the programmes available and the areas of the curriculum that can be enhanced by those programmes. Who else would have the time and opportunity to fulfil that role?

The support of "an expert" can make a tremendous difference to the progress and understanding of the children and the staff.

A key stage 2 colleague recently commented that they would be able to teach the curriculum at key stage 1 but would need support to source and apply appropriate programmes linked to the different areas of the curriculum. My wider overview allows me to offer that support.

A teacher and teaching assistant working together will often bring to the children a variety of approaches to better suit their learning styles.

Teaching assistants are skilled at adapting their styles and approaches to suit the teachers with whom they work and the children they support.

Teaching assistants cannot and often don't want to replace teachers.

However, they can and do support teaching. They have different roles and responsibilities and are often denigrated and undermined if they lack formal qualifications. We should recognise and celebrate their skills and their contribution to the learning and teaching within school.

Working as a partner with the teacher within the classroom allows the TA to develop an understanding of the children and their abilities. Who understands better the routines and organisation of the day, and the children within a class, than the teacher and their support assistant?

In our school when a teacher is ill, parents and children know that it is less disruptive when they are able to follow the usual routines, under the direction of the assistant, who is regularly in that class. A supply teacher has the qualifications and ability to teach a class and takes responsibility for the children within that class, but are they best suited to support a child for the next two or three days while their teacher is ill?

The teaching assistant knows the work that the children have been covering, the progress they have made and the next stage of the planning. They are aware of an individual teacher's approach with the children and the availability of the resources, thus ensuring stability and continuity.

Not all teaching assistants are willing or able to do this. Like any other professional, some teaching assistants will have the understanding, skills and ability to fulfil this role, some will not.

All members of the teaching profession should value the contribution of all staff. Why do some continue to say that teachers can do a better job than teaching assistants and that we should spend money on more teachers? Teachers do not do a better job than teaching assistants; they have a different job. I made the decision to be a teaching assistant rather than a teacher. That decision was not based on whether I had the skills to be a teacher but whether I wanted the responsibility.

We are people with different levels of experience, often highly skilled in specified areas and there to assist the teacher. Encourage us to get on with what we are good at, acknowledge our ability and please don't tell me that my salary would be better spent on a teacher.

Judith Howes is a higher-level teaching assistant at Hardwick primary in Stockton-on-Tees and was TA of the Year in the 2003 Teaching Awards

NO - says Ian Murch

Classroom assistants play an invaluable role in schools today, and the growth in their numbers, working alongside teachers, has been welcomed.

Judith Howes is an outstanding example of how a teaching assistant with an intimate knowledge of the community, and the skills and experience that a lifelong teacher is unlikely to have acquired, can make a huge difference to how well children engage with their school.

Every class should have a teaching assistant. Every school would also benefit from other specialist staff working across the whole school, particularly people with expertise in ICT. So classroom assistants are certainly "worth the investment" if the Government genuinely has extra resources.

But the context of the present "reforms" is a little different to that. I believe we have to ask the question in a different way. "Would you rather the Government invested in a teacher or a teaching assistant to teach your child?"

The reality is that, from September, for the first time for more than 40 years, hundreds of thousands of children will spend two or more hours every week in the classroom without a qualified teacher.

This is how the Government is delivering on a long-standing promise to give teachers in primary schools a lighter workload. It was a welcome promise, made after all the teacher unions had forced the Government to focus on their 50-plus hours working week, the high rate of drop-out of new teachers and escalating stress.

In Scotland, this promise has been delivered by employing thousands of extra qualified teachers. How ironic, then, that in England and Wales this change may of itself see fewer teachers employed. Schools, not funded for the extra cost, have struggled to put bodies in front of their children when the class teacher is to be released for their planning, preparation and assessment time.

The Government itself only claims a 1 per cent increase in funding is available to fund a 10 per cent reduction in teachers' pupil contact time.

Some schools have opted for bigger classes to fund teacher release. Those following Government exhortations are putting teaching assistants in front of classes, and sometimes cutting teaching posts to pay for them.

Far from seeing this as a crisis measure, Department for Education and Skills publications laud these new arrangements as the start of something bigger, where the "expensive" resource of teachers is used less and less for direct work with pupils. It makes it easier to see why the Government is quite relaxed about the bulge of teachers in their 50s heading for a well earned exit from the profession.

It is disingenuous of the Government to focus on talented individuals like Judith to make the case that you don't need to be trained as a teacher in order to teach. There are many adults in the classroom already, with particular skills and bags of enthusiasm, but the vast majority of them don't have the five or six years' full-time education beyond 16 that a teacher has, or the extensive training in classroom management, curriculum knowledge and assessment for learning.

This gap is not remedied by the three-day accreditation process, which is how most existing teaching assistants are acquiring the qualification that allows them to take a class, nor even by the 50-day course, which most schools have decided is too expensive to use.

More teaching assistants and fewer teachers are likely to equal more stress for teachers and lower standards for pupils. Teaching assistants deserve access to better training and higher status. Poverty pay and term-time-only contracts are a disgrace. Teaching assistants will be an excellent source of qualified teachers if these proper pathways are opened up. But teaching on the cheap is in no one's interest.

Ian Murch is secretary of the Bradford branch of the National Union of Teachers and a member of its national executive

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