Trampled by the classroom cavalry;Opinion

26th February 1999 at 00:00
THE COGNOSCENTI of the spiritual life make much of the advice given to the Christian, ama et fac quod vis, meaning "love and do as you wish". The age of rationalism, high-tech whatnots and diminished responsibility for belief have meant that, wittingly or unwittingly, the substance, if not the spirit, of the thought has been appropriated by politicians and manipulated like Play-Doh.

A satisfying example of this trend is the whole question of consultation. Dragooned into public usage by the former Strathclyde Region, in its hands it was a nebulous concept masquerading as democratic referencing. New Labour has refined it to a fine art. Removing the democratic bit. it now takes different forms, like "Consult and I'll tell you what you're getting", or "Consult and I'll tell you what you want".

This is Tone's tone of course, and one that his local minions, impersonators and guisers have slipped easily into. Stating the party line seems enough justification for carrying out, even embedding into legislation, the party intention, regardless of any disagreement, dissension or, last refuge of the politically naive, call for debate. A good example of just what kind of fix an ideological idee fixe can be for our political leaders is their advocacy of classroom assistants.

As our educational system thrusts, on its own admission a little uncertainly, into the 21st century, parents can be sure of one thing. Their children's school may not have enough teachers, it may not be windproof and watertight, it may not (regardless of political promises) be yet fully connected to the Net. It will, however, have classroom assistants. They are a rapid response to a non-request, and our politicians are not even breathing deeply when they emphasise that this addition to school personnel is what schools will get regardless of what schools want.

Of course, consultation has been carried out at a whole range of levels. To my knowledge, every consultation of headteachers has opted, almost 100 per cent, for more teachers. Every teacher I have spoken to wants more teachers in schools, so that the political demands made on them for instant achievement can be met. So schools will get classroom assistants.

Schools which will have to cope with a new tier of staffing resource have of course received little or no information about the employment of classroom assistants. This informational haar cleared up a little with the publication of Time for Teaching, subtitled "Improving administration in schools", a mine of information when we have been starved of much that makes sense.

Recruitment, for example, will start in April, presumably for deployment in August, after training - and, presumably, after salary scales have been agreed, permanent contracts negotiated and a career structure with training opportunities in paid time provided.

Most interestingly, Time for Teaching gives some pointers about duties which may be carried out by classroom assistants. It lists 17. I puzzle over where the compilers of these duties are coming from, or even where they have been. Not, let me hasten to add, that I disagree with the duties themselves, though the range implied is a little too wide, not just for comfort but for practicality.

Who, for example, transfers information to reports, attends to visitors, deals with minor accidents, supervises playgrounds, keeps accounts at the moment? Do the compilers think these activities don't happen now? Or do they think that, in line with the political puffery, schools are waiting with their tongues hanging out for the 7th Cavalry of classroom assistants to ride over the horizon?

I don't want to appear curmudgeonly about this. In my educational situation, the more the merrier. Time for Teaching however, in its checklist for schools, recommends the "4Cs" for successful implementation of change. Clarity (everyone clear about it?), communication (does everyone know about it?), competence (can everyone do it?), and commitment (are we all going with it?).

Could someone make that "5Cs" perhaps? Consultation (are we getting what we want?).

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