Upfront and personal

21st February 2003 at 00:00
Support staff are taking over responsibilities from teachers in a pioneering rejig of classroom roles. Jill Parkin assesses a new kind of pastoral post

There's a revolution going on in Cambridgeshire, where one comprehensive is relieving teachers of their pastoral responsibilities and handing them to support assistants. The new set-up at Bassingbourn Village college is likely to prove a model for schools aiming to put January's workload agreement into practice.

The changes, which have created a post of pastoral support assistant for each year to replace the assistant head of year's role, followed a visit by a research student looking for the "X-factor" - the secret of the 650-pupil school's success on inclusion.

"The University of London researcher rated us among the 42 most inclusive schools in Britain. What interested her was our combination of a high percentage of special needs pupils and very good GCSE results," says deputy principal Di Beddow. "She concluded that our X-factor was a combination of our leadership and our learning support assistants, who are an articulate and thoughtful lot. The visit also coincided with four of our five assistant heads of year leaving for promotion."

Bassingbourn has an open admissions policy, and takes special needs students from outside its catchment area. Two students use wheelchairs, others have Asperger's syndrome and a range of special needs such as dyslexia and dyspraxia. Its proportion of special needs students is higher than the national average, but the college came third in Cambridgeshire in the recent value-added tables for GCSE and key stage 3 tests.

Ms Beddow says: "At Bassingbourn, we believe teachers should be free to teach, and we see our LSAs as an asset. Our special needs co-ordinator, Joan Yeadell, argued that we could release our LSAs for a few hours each day to cover the duties of assistant heads of year."

The school will eventually have five PSAs, and has appointed four so far, as one of the assistant heads of year wanted another year before trying for promotion. They check absences, provide PSHE resources, file records, follow up parents' inquiries, distribute agendas and take minutes. They also have non-administrative duties including counselling, and support and monitoring of pupil achievement. PSAs are seen as more approachable than teachers on personal matters, and one step up from peer counsellors.

Jackie Oakes, 55, is the PSA for Year 7, a job that particularly suits her because of her LSA experience liaising with Year 6 children. Her previous jobs included working in a bank and in administration for a computer company. She's the school's support staff governor. "If students have a problem they will come and find us. We take the middle ground between the form tutor and the head of year. You need patience and a sense of humour.

You need to be approachable and professional," says Mrs Oakes, who has two children, and has been an LSA for 10 years. "I see this as a career move."

Annette Edwards, 50, is a trained counsellor and the PSA for Year 11. When the job was discussed, she had no doubts. "I was keen, and I have counselling skills, which are useful. It's being that in-between person they feel they can talk to. It's a role that can be developed."

Although the idea posed challenges, Bassingbourn's solution may well be a prototype for other schools. Ms Beddow believes Bassingbourn, as a networked learning community for the National College of School Leadership, can take calculated risks, researching national initiatives such as the extended use of support staff.

But there were obstacles. The assistant head of year role is a useful career step and pay supplement for young teachers. The creation of PSAs also meant losing some hours of support in the classroom. On top of that, there was the issue of training support staff.

"Some teachers were concerned about the loss of the role for young teachers, so we have put in some curriculum support posts in equal opportunities, citizenship and PSHE," says Ms Beddow. "We've made another appointment to the special needs department to cover hours lost in the classroom. And we have a programme of development for the support staff."

Other support staff have not been forgotten. Bassingbourn has two senior LSAs responsible for support staff performance management, and the chief catering supervisor and a senior personal assistant have run two of the student "forums", which meet every two weeks and debate student issues.

They make sure meetings are minuted and bring issues to the forum from the staff.

Developing the role is also on Ms Beddow's mind, and on the minds of Bassingbourn's heads of year. Both Ms Beddow and the school's principal, Catherine Jenkinson-Dix, say the role of the PSA has great potential.

"We're asking all sorts of questions about professional development, looking closely at coaching and mentoring. To get the best out of support staff, the mentor has to work closely with them to find out about their skills. Unlike teachers, they're not used to standing up in front of 30 children," says Ms Beddow.

"This is a reflective process for the heads of year as well, encouraging them to analyse and develop the skills they find in their year team. We hope this process will improve management and leadership qualities in all our pastoral staff. We're looking at formal courses, at pooling elements of such courses to tailor-make something for our staff, in-house and externally. ICT training is a consideration, too.

"It's an important professional job and our PSAs are just as much pastoral leaders as our heads of year are. Recently, we had a pastoral leaders'

meeting, where the assessment co-ordinator consulted heads of year and PSAs on what sort of data was needed to motivate and support students. We believe the appointment of PSAs has made our college a more inclusive establishment - for pupils and staff."

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