'We're not just mums helping out - we're trained to do a job'

10th October 2008 at 01:00
The job of teaching assistant is still accorded low status, despite the crucial role they play in the classroom, writes Adi Bloom

Teaching assistants are overworked, underpaid and undervalued, with many parents failing to appreciate the level of training that the job requires.

Michelle Lowe, from Staffordshire University, interviewed 30 teaching assistants about their place in the classroom hierarchy.

She found that almost none saw themselves as professionals. "A lot of people don't realise you have done training," one said. "They think that you are a mum helping."

Others echoed this, pointing out that the job requires knowledge of child development: "We have to do the training now . to work alongside teachers, you've got to understand some of the things they've been taught. You have to know how children develop."

Another teaching assistant insisted that her sense of vocation gave her role professional standing. "People do rely on me," she said. "So, therefore, I believe that makes me a professional person."

Most teachers felt that teaching assistants' lack of professional qualifications was a limitation. One said: "They haven't had the training. They haven't got the degree. None of the TAs has been monitored like a teacher."

Since the workforce agreement became operational in 2003, the number of teaching assistants has increased significantly, as has their level of responsibility. There are now 146,500 in English primaries, 97.7 per cent of whom are women.

Few of the assistants seen by Dr Lowe felt they had any power. Many blamed this on a lack of qualifications; having a degree was seen as the key to becoming an "expert".

One teaching assistant said: "If teachers are sent on courses to be taught new ways of dealing with things, then maybe the opportunity to go on some of those courses would be nice."

This was echoed by teachers. One called for assistants to be trained in basic skills, such as behaviour management, first aid and phonics. In fact, many teachers recognised that the treatment of assistants was exploitative. Three quarters of the teaching assistants interviewed were paid less than pound;1,000 a month, and almost all earned below pound;1,400. Many worked unpaid overtime.

One primary head said: "She (the assistant) is here for three hours and I only pay her for two. I don't force her to, but I guess I do expect her to be there. I'm going to hell in a handcart, that's for sure."

Dr Lowe said heads will have to redefine the role of assistants as many go on to take further qualifications.

"There must be remuneration for the work done, clearly delineated roles and robust employment contracts," she said. "While there are training opportunities and university links, remuneration also needs to match qualifications. TAs still have a long way to go should they wish to become a profession."

'Teaching Assistants: The Development of a Profession?' by Michelle Lowe.

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