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7th February 2003 at 00:00
Classroom assistants were highlighted by the Scottish Executive last week as one of its achievements to date. But their role seems to be changing, writes Douglas Blane

Classroom assistants have been at the centre of a huge row in England, since the proposal to enlist an elite corps to fill in for absent teachers met with fierce resistance from the teaching unions. But only distant rumbles of these battles have been heard in Scotland.

In its response last week to the national debate on education, the Scottish Executive listed classroom assistants as one of its "tangible" achievements to date. The latest national figures (March 2002) show 4,333 full-time equivalent classroom assistants in Scotland's primary schools - sufficient to achieve the Executive's adult-pupil target ratio of 15:1.

The Executive has committed pound;72 million to continue the classroom assistant initiative over the next two years and take it into secondary schools.

There are no plans to introduce the English model of advanced classroom assistants permitted to take classes in the absence of a teacher, but there are issues that need to be addressed before the potential of these new recruits can be fully realised.

One area of concern is the classroom assistant's role, or roles, because these individuals now take on a huge variety of tasks, and as time passes their responsibilities seem to be evolving from a specifically classroom to a whole-school perspective.

While a whole-school remit can be a boon to managers, it is not always welcomed wholeheartedly by teachers. A report published in December by the Scottish Council for Research in Education, More Than an Extra Pair of Hands?, says most teachers who responded expressed satisfaction with the classroom assistant initiative but the degree of dissatisfaction seemed to be growing with time.

Reasons most often given were frequent interruptions or withdrawals of timetabled support from classes and "a shift in the classroom assistant's remit from in-class support to administrative and supervisory duties".

Teachers are growing concerned, says the SCRE, that less time is available for classroom assistants to work in class, because they are having to spend more time on routine tasks around the school.

It almost seems as if school managers, having gradually recognised a valuable resource, are moving to exploit it themselves, rather than having teachers reap the sole benefits. But this is simplistic. It would be more accurate to describe the situation as fluid and dynamic, with different models in different schools, evolving as time goes on and as lessons are learned.

At Bruntsfield Primary in Edinburgh, which employs five classroom assistants, headteacher Barbara Boyd regards the question of training teachers to work with classroom assistants as the biggest outstanding issue.

"Some teachers are naturally good and able to manage another adult in the room really well. But others aren't, and you can go in and find a classroom assistant sitting doing nothing while the teacher is telling a story. That sort of thing is very frustrating when there is so much work to be done around the school.

"It means the teachers have training needs as well as the assistants. So we have set up a training programme using a pack provided by the Executive, which takes the teachers and the classroom assistants through the process of working together.

"My assistant head has been piloting this course with a group of teachers and classroom assistants, and it seems to be going well. It helps to bring people's assumptions out into the open for discussion, and it suggests systems and strategies that teachers can use to get the best out of classroom assistants."

The pack that Bruntsfield Primary uses as the basis for its in-house training is Working with Classroom Assistants, which was produced by Strathclyde University, funded by the Executive and distributed last year to all Scottish primary schools.

"It highlights the issues," says assistant headteacher Caroline Sanderson.

"It clarifies them and it creates a forum for teachers and assistants to work through in depth things they might have hesitated to raise themselves."

A summary of the SCRE research study, Classroom Assistants: Key Issues from the National Evaluation, published December 2002, is at www.scotland.gov.uklibrary5educationinsi-00.asp. Copies of Working with Classroom Assistants can be downloaded from www.scotland.gov.uklibrary5educationwwca%20.pdf

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