In the classroom, they are often a dream come true. But in court, they can become a teacher's worst nightmare, writes Adi Bloom.
Teaching assistants are increasingly called upon as witnesses in court cases. This week, teacher Julian Ford was cleared of manhandling seven-year-old pupils (see above). The chief prosecution witness was Michelle Beaton, a teaching assistant at his south London primary school.
Similarly, Judi Sunderland, an advanced-skills teacher at Immanuel college, in Bradford, was charged with common assault for holding down the arms of a boy who was attacking her. A teaching assistant who had witnessed the incident provided a statement in the case which was dropped last week.
And in May, a Swindon court heard evidence from a classroom assistant who claimed to have witnessed a PE teacher kick an unruly pupil's chair out from under him and then challenge him to a fight. The assistant, Amanda Prosser, backed up accusations made by the 12-year-old pupil. She said that Frederick Harding was "a really nice, kind teacher", but that his actions were unreasonable. Mr Harding was subsequently cleared.
Nonetheless Unison, the public-service union, believes teaching assistants have a duty to report any action they consider illegal. A spokesman said:
"If you see something slightly suspicious, you report it. It may be that teachers are acting within their remit, but we would still urge people to approach the authorities and ask, 'Is this right?' It's up to management to decide how far to pursue it."
In several cases, illegal behaviour would have gone unnoticed had a teaching assistant not reported it. In May, Funmilayo Nejo, a teacher at Keyworth primary, in south London, was found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct by England's General Teaching Council, after her teaching assistant saw her use an eraser on a pupil's key stage 1 test paper. And in January, Beryl Thompson, a 53-year-old special-needs teacher from Cheshire, admitted nine charges of assault, after smearing hot spaghetti on two boys' faces. She had been reported to the head by her classroom assistants.
The National Union of Teachers insists that teaching assistants are not classroom "snakes in the grass". A spokeswoman said: "Inappropriate behaviour is inappropriate behaviour, no matter who commits the act and who reports it. If classroom assistants don't talk, children will."
And Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT union, said: "It's outrageous to suggest that classroom assistants are spies. Up and down the country, teachers and assistants are working together well and professionally."
Unison says fewer accusations would be made if assistants were given clear guidance in classroom legalities.
The Teacher Training Agency has already introduced such guidance for higher-level teaching assistants. This includes details of the legal framework underpinning teaching.
It states: "By knowing the extent of their responsibilities, support staff... will be able to anticipate problems and avoid errors."