Who would train the assistants?

7th August 1998 at 01:00
AFTER reading your report on "Step up for assistants?" (TESS, July 17) I feel confused, disappointed and irritated. Neil Munro quotes Glasgow's depute director of education as saying that classroom helpers should not be "dogsbodies straightening the dinner queues", which in my opinion is inappropriate, sensationalist and divisionist.

I realise that the purpose of the report is to inform on what has been said by Ronnie O'Connor and the Scottish Office, but the slant is such that it implies that schools, and class teachers in particular, currently take advantage of classroom assistants.

In my experience this is not the case. Class teachers, who are more highly qualified and more expensive than their classroom assistant, are very careful to ensure that "menial" tasks in the classroom are divided equally. Mr O'Connor states that assistants are "an incredible resource which we don't want reduced to dogsbodies simply cleaning paintbrushes".

Whom does Mr O'Connor propose does these tasks? From what I have seen, it is usually teachers who give up their own time, to do so, or "steal" time from an already overcrowded teaching day, time which our highly trained professionals could use in a more worthwhile way.

And while it is lovely that Mr O'Connor considers classroom assistants to be an incredible resource, one cannot help asking: when was the last time we read something praising the work of teachers in this way?

The Scottish Office states that the chief objective of hiring assistants is to raise standards of pupil attainment by relieving teachers of "non-teaching duties".

Has Mr O'Connor forgotten the amount of time teaching professionals currently put into planning and preparation, correction, assessment, record keeping and report writing? With the present amount of imposed paperwork and the disintegration of behaviour in schools, it is a wonder teachers can find time to eat their own lunch, never mind watch the dinner queues.

While I agree in principle that for some classroom assistants a career structure would be an excellent motivational tool, surely there needs to be some kind of screening process as to who could apply for "teacher training" in this way, just as there is for teacher training colleges.

If the Scottish Office is genuinely concerned about a "looming" shortage of teachers why doesn't it make more places available at teacher training colleges? When I applied to Moray House six years ago, there were over 500 applicants for 55 places on the PGCE course. Now I believe that the ratio of applicants to places is even greater. There are a wealth of intelligent and highly motivated people who could give just as much to the profession as people trained "on the job". What is being done to attract those kinds of people into teaching?

There is a danger of making a teaching qualification too accessible, by introducing vocational training courses, so that the image of the profession, already undervalued, will plummet even further.

Many teachers currently working with classroom assistants have to take responsibility not only for the planning and preparation of activities for two people in the classroom but are actively involved in the training of their assistant.

My concern would be that, under the current proposals, this could easily develop into class teachers becoming involved in training classroom assistants to become teachers, yet another task for teachers from a scheme intended to supply them with more teaching time.

From the point of view of pupils, it is indeed wonderful to have two people working in a classroom, particularly in the infant department. There is no doubt that pupils' attention and motivation are enhanced by carefully planned and appropriate work done by classroom assistants.

But please, Mr O'Connor, be aware that all of this does cause extra work for the teacher, and time spent training is not time spent teaching.

Kirsten Dorward Primary teacher (PGCE) Edinburgh

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