A beautifully draped "throne", surrounded by colourful star-shaped cushions, gives the magic touch to Jenny Logan's literacy room. This, she says proudly, is where her little "stars" sit - groups of children withdrawn from class for special literacy support.
The room is bright and airy, graced by the particular smell of new furniture and carpet. A long meetings table with smart royal blue chairs, a lower circular reading table, bookshelves at infant height full of neat new books and, of course, the throne and star cushions all make for a thoroughly attractive reading room.
As literacy support manager and Better Reading co-ordinator for Castlefields infants, in the Yorkshire Pennine town of Brighouse, Jenny is proud of this new addition to the 155-pupil school. She has furnished it and is in charge of what happens there, a dependable, key figure for the constant stream of groups of children who come to the room for assessment and additional help with reading. Jenny screens all children in Year 1 for an Early Literacy Support programme and works one-to-one with struggling Year 2 pupils. She is highly trained in reading support and behaviour management because of the many courses she has attended through the school.
The fact that Jenny is a teaching assistant and not a teacher is evidence of the commitment Castlefields makes to the development of its support staff. Indeed, Jenny is just one of a team of 14 assistants in school, including playground supervisors. And she is not alone among them in taking responsibility for a key aspect of school life.
Tracy Wimbles, who formerly worked as a bank clerk and came to the school as a volunteer mum to help with a gym club, now gives 25 hours of paid ICT support a week. Mrs Wimbles set up the IT suite and supports groups of children who use it. She also runs a Friday afternoon computer club for Year 2 children and a parent-and-children's club after school on Mondays.
"I also give staff a lot of help in finding the best software for their needs," she says. "There's a lot of free software on the internet; schools don't need to spend huge amounts of money, but it takes time to sort it out. Staff don't often have that time."
Dezra Davies originally offered an extra pair of volunteer hands at playtime and in the kitchen when her youngest child joined Year 2. She is now responsible for running a nurture group, an early years behaviour intervention programme.
In the lunchtime playground, Rachel Barnfather stands scarecrow-like, arms akimbo, surrounded by children clamouring to play games. With her consent, a group of boys cordon off an area for football while she starts off a group of boys and girls playing Starbird, a game that tests co-ordination by turning the playground into a ship's deck.
Rachel, who began as a midday supervisor two years ago, is now responsible for developing outdoor play. This is used partly to build literacy and numeracy skills with Foundation children. The aim is also to create playground games that foster notions of fair play and improve peer relationships for all pupils.
By being encouraged to build expertise, teaching assistants at Castlefields now play a fundamental role in raising achievement. Although the school draws from a deprived catchment plagued by drugs problems, it achieves well above national averages at the end of key stage 1.
Ms Davies says: "Teachers have to teach to the whole class, but we can help meet the needs of the individual child and develop the whole child emotionally, socially as well as academically, because we don't have to focus on the whole class. We can stand back and observe and feed back to the teacher. We work very much as a team with the teachers."
She praises headteacher Susan Woods for fostering confidence in support staff. "She does have confidence in us to make decisions," Ms Davies says. "I was a bit worried when asked to establish a nurture group, as I'm not a teacher, but was impressed that she entrusted me with such an important task. She does convince you that you are capable of things."
Teachers and teaching assistants at Castlefields hold joint planning meetings, go on courses together and even occasionally spend residential weekends together. Sara Brigg, Castlefields' deputy head and primary teacher of the year in this year's teaching awards, says assistants were consulted on how they wanted to develop professionally.
Teaching assistants have been sent on courses including counselling, behaviour management, Better Reading, Progression in Phonics, planning for Ofsted, dyslexia-friendly schools, child protection, internet use and first aid. The school's governors have also established a career structure and appraisal system for support staff, offering a means of moving up through local authority pay scales. For example, all teaching assistants who work at the school for five years are upgraded.
All support staff are encouraged to develop skills. Administrator Marion Bowland is being sent on day release to study for the Association of Accounting Technicians exams. "Whatever you want to get involved in or feel capable of, you are encouraged by the school," she says. Kath Kao, the cleaner and site manager, is being encouraged to undertake a health and safety NVQ. Susan Wood, Castlefields' headteacher, says: "If we develop expertise in all our staff, then our children can access that. It gives us the edge and improves the quality of life here."
HOW CASTLEFIELDS WORKS WITH TEACHING ASSISTANTS
* Pinpointed key areas where the school needed to expand provision
* Consulted teaching assistants about areas of expertise they wished to develop
* Matched teaching assistants' aspirations with the needs of the school
* Involves teaching assistants in all curriculum planning meetings
* Introduced a clearly defined, incremental career path for teaching assistants.
* Encourages teaching assistants to develop professionally by attending courses and undertaking study for qualifications with school support.