Training the assistants;Opinion

14th August 1998 at 01:00
Foundation courses for support staff can be expanded to take in the Government's new classroom helpers, says George Ennis .

The announcement of pound;66 million in funding for the training of school support staff is a welcome boost for local authorities which have long recognised the important contribution they make to the effective running of schools.

While the money is new the principle has been gaining ground for some time now, and the development of a foundations course for teacher support staff is one initiative offered at Langside College in Glasgow. The course is aimed particularly at support staff working with pupils who have special educational needs. But the skills developed have wider applications in the general area of teacher assistance.

Given the opportunities in the course for progression to move advanced studies and the growing importance placed by the Government on this kind of training, it should make available classroom professionals who understand the processes of education, can assist in the identification of needs and, while not teacher trained, will provide informed support for the class teacher. The most recent group of students supported by Glasgow City Council will receive their awards on August 28.

Langside College, which has been training SEN support staff since 1972, discussed with schools the most appropriate kind of initial training requirements for support staff and the resulting foundations programme is an integral part of the portfolio of SEN courses offered by the college. So far more than 100 support staff from various local authorities have successfully completed their studies.

The course, validated by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, gives support staff knowledge of the theoretical aspects of SEN and develops their competence in dealing with such issues in a practical situation. On completion, staff will, for example, understand the range of conditions that might give rise to learning difficulties or disabilities, have an insight into the sorts of approaches that could assist such pupils to cope with the curriculum, be able to sustain and develop effective relationships with the pupils, know how to function as a member of a multidisciplinary team and have gained experience of developing, implementing and evaluating a practical activity.

Importantly, they will be able to make a more effective contribution to the curriculum in the classroom and therefore provide a valuable resource in the delivery of learning programmes.

A main feature of the course is that it is offered by distance learning to local authorities, with lecturers periodically taking sessions locally. Delivery time is flexible and tailored to the requirements of the authority but should be completed within one academic session at the most.

A major advantage is the fact that the staff involved in the design, development and delivery are all qualified SEN specialists with extensive school experience who understand the needs of the pupils involved and the qualities and abilities demanded of support staff. Many of the staff who have completed the course returned to formal studies after long absences and despite approaching the programme with apprehension found it both challenging and liberating, giving them the confidence to carry out their support role in a more professional and constructive manner.

It has also helped them recognise their own abilities and potential and, with that, the opportunity to consider higher level studies since the foundations course is designed to enable progression to the college's HNC and HND courses for school support staff.

While these courses are also offered to full-time students, the support of local authorities in accepting the financial cost of seconding staff to part-time programmes has been paramount in their success. Therefore the Scottish Office announcement on funding will be most welcome to both the councils and the pupils themselves, who will be the ultimate beneficiaries.

George Ennis is senior lecturer, support for learning, Langside College, Glasgow.

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