David Blunkett wants teachers to become 'managers of learning'. Will his promise of more teaching assistants help them to fulfil this role or is it just a smokescreen for a growing recruitment crisis? Michael Duffy reports.
David Blunkett has seen the future - and he believes it works. He wants to put qualified teaching assistants into every school. He says he wants to do this not just to provide better support for teachers but also "better access to the latest developments in key school subjects". They will be, he says, a key resource for teachers "in their developing role as managers of learning" and a key resource for schools as they modernise and learn to operate more efficiently.
It's not an entirely new idea, as it featured in last year's Green Paper alongside the controversial new pay and performance system. Twenty thousand extra full-time assistants (or their equivalent) will be in place, the Green Paper says, by 2002 - 80 per cent of them in primary schools.
But Mr Blunkett's latest promise holds something new: it specifically relates to secondary schools. It is an extension of the scheme now coming on stream in primaries, and he wants to include it in Labour's manifesto at the next election.
That is fine, as far as it goes. Few teachers dispute that adequate and skilled support, both inside and outside the classroom, can make a significant difference to the job they do. That's not modernisation, they say; it's a long overdue realisation that it doesn't make sense to use scarce teachers as porters, clerks, caretakers, technicians and unpaid social workers. Under local management, many schools have deliberately diverted resources into quality support in some of these areas. The more adults there are supporting teachers, inside or outside school, the better children learn.
But Mr Blunkett is saying rather more than that. His case is that the job itself is changing, that in a knowledge-based society teachers have to become managers of learning and that both teachers and their pupils need the support of other adults.
Teachers, increasingly familiar with computers in their classrooms and to the presence of other adults in their lessons, are inclined to accept both Mr Blunkett's propositions. It is clear, though, that the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, has not yet been converted.
Writing in The TES on January 7 this year, he was scathing about what he called "the emperor's lack of clothes". There was no need at all, he said, to keep rethinking the nature of the educational enterprise, or to research new approaches to teaching and learning. The purpose of education in the 21st century, he said, was exactly what it was in the 19th and the 20th, and "the traditional craft of the classroom is central to it".
There are some conflicting messages in what Mr Blunkett is proposing. Classroom assistants, he has said, will "help to discipline pupils, set up equipment and oversee group work, making them a central element of post-11 education" - not quite the cutting edge of educational change.
Whatever he intends, it is going to take a long time to happen. It won't be included in the Government's spending plans before 2002 at the earliest, and there has been no attempt to cost it. There are also three fundamental worries.
First, what lies behind it? Teachers are expensive, particularly in secondary schools, and the current salary review proposals will make them dearer still. They are also increasingly scarce. John Howson, an educational consulant who monitors teacher supply, has warned for some time that current recruitment for secondary teacher training is running at a six-year low - even in the subjects (maths, science and modern languages) which pay a bursary on enrolment.
Last week, David Blunkett accepted there was a crisis by agreeing to pay salaries from pound;6,000 to pound;13,000 to all PGCE students starting their training this September. In these contexts, Mr Blunkett's idea of getting non-teaching adults (or para-professionals as the DfEE prefers to call them) has an undeniable political attraction. But should it really be, as things stand now, his real priority? There are several other issues which should compete for his attention. "How about ensuring that all maths lessons in secondary schools are taught by teachers of mathematics?" says John Howson. It's a sharp reminder of where the need is greatest.
The second worry about Mr Blunkett's promise is whether schools can afford it. There is a sort of Catch-22 whenever money is promised for a specific purpose like this: the funds come to schools via local education authorities by means of the Standards Fund - and the local authority has to contribute a half-share. So the more money that comes in the Standards Fund, the less there is for the delegated schools budget. There is an element of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Extra classroom support after 2002 could mean more staffing cuts in individual schools.
The third concern is whether Mr Blunkett's vision fits with what schools themselves see as their major need. No school approached by The TES challenged the desirability of classroom support. Sue Kirkham, head of Woodrush high school, near Birmingham, says she and her teachers greatly value the contribution it is making. But in current circumstances it can't possibly be the major spending need, she says.
"There are three priorities here and they are all to do with better learning," she adds. "We need to find the extra teaching that sixth-form students need, given the Government's post-16 reforms. We need to reduce class sizes - especially in key stage 3, which has taken the brunt of successive budget cuts. And we need, somehow, to increase non-teaching time for teachers. That's not free time, it's working time, and it is desperately needed."
Malcolm Trobe, head of Malmesbury school in Wiltshire, feels the same. "The priority? More teachers. And more teacher time. The contact ratio here is .83 and rising. The Standards Fund simply doesn't address that. It just moves the money round."
Kate Griffin, from Greenford school, west London, says more teachers are needed, "and teachers need more time, not least to observe, monitor and evaluate".
Kevin Harper, from Ridgeway school near Plymouth, says: "Yes, of course we need more technical help. It's invaluable, not least in languages, technology and PE. And we need native language speakers - student 'assistants'. They are now a luxury we simply can't afford. But in terms of helping teachers to become managers of learning, the priority is more non-teaching time." Other heads give similar responses.
So is Mr Blunkett right that it's good, well-used support that is needed? Or are heads right when they say teachers need more time for observation and evaluating, planning, assessing, updating subject knowledge - and that Mr Blunkett's vision is really a disguise for a growing recruitment crisis?
What do you think the priorities should be? E-mail your thoughts to Friday magazine at firstname.lastname@example.org