Use assistants to plug gaps, heads told

16th March 2001 at 00:00
Birmingham chief Tim Brighouse fuels union anger as teacher shortage crisis deepens. Clare Dean reports

One of the country's leading education officers has advised headteachers to use classroom assistants to cover for absent staff as the crisis over teacher shortages intensifies.

In a contentious move, Tim Brighouse, a former vice-chair of the Department for Education and Employment's standards taskforce, has told the 459 heads in Birmingham to pay learning assistants to plug the gaps in schools.

At least five have done so, prompting widespread concern. The move comes as industrial action spreads to eight more authorities amid threats from employers to dock the wages of those who take part by refusing to cover for absent colleagues or vacancies.

Mr Brighouse's suggestion to heads has been attacked by unions.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "Using classroom assistants is dangerous and certainly not good practice. Supervising is not teaching." Members of the NAHT have been advised not to exacerbate the dispute by expecting staff to provide cover.

Roger King, from Birmingham National Union of Teachers, said: "Assistants are clearly competent but they are not trained to the level of teachers and there are health and safety issues."

There are more than 100,000 teaching assistants - whose qualifications range from nothing to degree-level - in England and Wales.

A DFEE spokesman said: "Any adult cn supervise children, as opposed to teach or help teachers, as long as they have cleared the necessary criminal checks."

Birmingham city council said the use of assistants was one of a number of short-term measures being put to heads. It will raise tension over shortages in the city's staffrooms who vote on joining the no-cover action next month.

The action, by members of the NUT and National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, is already affecting 1,000 schools in London and Doncaster. It will spread to Middlesbrough, Leicester, Nottingham, Southampton and Portsmouth next week.

It is developing into the most serious showdown between teachers and the Government yet, with Education Secretary David Blunkett refusing to give in to demands for a 35-hour working week for teachers.

The independent teachers' pay review body last month recommended an urgent inquiry into teachers' workloads. The DFEE has not accepted that recommendation but a spokesman this week said it would "consider every practical measure to address needless bureaucracy".

NAHT members have been told they must give authorities the names of teachers who refuse to cover. Councils will then decide whether to deduct pay, at a minimum of pound;20 an hour.

Eamonn O'Kane, deputy general secretary of the NASUWT, said: "Unless the Government grasps the nettle, it is going to have continual outbursts of action. These are symptoms of a deeper malaise which has to be tackled."

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