Classroom assistants working with special needs pupils in London and the Home Counties are discovering how to deal better with the challenges they face through courses at West Herts College.
This term, 18 candidates are working towards a City and Guilds certificate in learning support, covering a range of topics relating to disabilities and learning difficulties, while seven are on a foundation course that examines problems relating to dyslexia and dyspraxia.
Some 75 assistants have attended the courses, each of which runs for 10 weeks, since last September. Candidates range from mothers who began as volunteer workers in their child's school and are now paid classroom assistants to career women seeking a change of direction.
Morfudd Wise, a tutor at the college, describes how the course on dyslexia has been designed to help assistants identify the condition. But she stressed: "They are not the class teacher, and must be careful not to go back and tread on people's toes."
Christine Walsh, who has worked at a Buckinghamshire junior school for six years, developed an interest in SENissues when a child with special needs came to her for help while she was working at the school's reception. "I felt that I needed further background so that I knew how to deal with the child properly, " she said.
Polly Jeary, who works at an independent prep school, said one child had reached such a low level of self-esteem that he kept telling her how he hated himself. "I didn't want to compound the problem any more because I didn't know enough about the issue," she said.
As well as providing practical guidance, the courses are seen as a way of lifting the profile of classroom assistants. The dyslexia course, thought to be the first of its kind in an FE college, leads to a qualification in supported learning that is accredited by the Buckinghamshire Open Network.
Elaine Grayhurst took the specialist teacher assistant course last year because she wanted to be seen as more than a welfare assistant. "We are more aware of dyslexia than we've ever been," said Elaine, who works at St Joan of Arc Secondary School in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire.
"I want to be able to put together a picture of the child and help them to progress in the national curriculum."
Bushey Meads School, on the outskirts of Watford, insists that its team of 11 learning support staff receive training within one year of taking up their posts. Support assistants, all of whom have day-to-day contact with SEN pupils, normally take the City and Guilds certificate at West Herts as well as attending other courses.
To gain the certificate, staff must fill in a competence sheet showing evidence of what they do at the secondary school and write a 2,000-word assignment.
Jan Drake, whose assignment consisted of writing a handbook for teachers on working with children suffering from cerebral palsy, is now studying an Open University module on specific educational needs. "The college course covered the whole spectrum of what we do and helped us to understand the jargon and different terms that are used," she said.
West Herts also offers an RSA certificate in literacy and numeracy support, allowing assistants to give children extra support in developing language and numeracy skills.
Jill Tattle, the college's director of learning support, says an increasing number of candidates on all three courses are having their fees paid for by their school.
"There has been a prioritising of school staff development budgets," she said. "The majority coming on courses are being sponsored by their employer.