The new classroom assistants scheme announced by the Scottish Office last week could become a training ground for the teachers of the future, a leading education official has suggested.
Ronnie O'Connor, Glasgow's senior depute director of education, said it was essential to have "a full career structure which could culminate in them becoming teachers themselves".
Assistants could become a particularly useful source of supply as teacher shortages loom.
But Fred Forrester, the Educational Institute of Scotland's depute general secretary, dismissed the idea as "no more than a theoretical possibility". Mr Forrester believed only a minority of assistants would want to become teachers and would regard "suspiciously" any short cut to a teaching qualification.
Mr O'Connor believes education authorities would be keen to press for classroom assistants, as a new national force of "paraprofessionals", to have national rates of pay and a national training framework, linked eventually to the new childcare qualifications and to teacher training.
The #163;66 million programme to introduce up to 5,000 assistants to primary classrooms over the next three years was "an incredible resource which we don't want reduced to dogsbodies simply cleaning paint brushes, straightening the dinner queues or other such deeply creative activities", Mr O'Connor said. "The initiative must be used to enhance the learning experience of youngsters. Otherwise it will be useless."
The Scottish Office has also made clear the chief objective of hiring assistants is "to raise standards of pupil attainment" by relieving teachers of non-teachin g duties and providing "support for learning activities". It has confirmed the intention that the new staff should be trained and hold a Scottish Vocational Qualification.
But in a letter to education authorities and unions David Crawley, head of the Scottish Office schools group, passed the buck to councils to decide on job specifications, pay and training so that the new posts "reflect local needs and classroom circumstances".
Mr Crawley did acknowledge that "some form of commonality" may be required, to ease job mobility for example.
Mr O'Connor called for an early indication from the Government that funding for assistants would extend beyond 2002. "This is important if councils are to be expected to invest in training over, say, a two-year period and then find they can only offer people temporary contracts because funding is uncertain beyond the third year."
Mr Forrester said the EIS would be studying the use of classroom assistants under early intervention programmes where they are enlisted to help with literacy and numeracy. The union would then decide whether to issue guidelines to its members.
"There are a lot of grey areas in this initiative between removing bureaucratic and supervisory activities from teachers, which pose no problems for us, and close involvement with actual teaching," Mr Forrester said.
Some of the proposed duties for classroom assistants, such as "support for learning", could be widely interpreted and were "a bit dodgy".
But the EIS welcomed the Education Minister's assurance, repeated in Mr Crawley's letter, that cash for classroom assistants was additional to the funding for reducing primary class sizes and not a cheaper alternative to it.