Mary Hampshire meets a new breed of primary classroom assistants.
A group of four and five-year-olds are sitting surrounded by a jungle of multicoloured animals, discussing what it might be like to be a bear, a prairie dog or a mole. They're in the library at Charlestown primary, Blackley, north Manchester.
Karen Cunningham, the adult who sits with them, has revamped this corner to encourage reading and the warm, vibrant atmosphere is in stark contrast to the bleak urban landscape outside. "Can you remember what bears like to eat?" she asks.
"HONEY," is the chorus of replies.
"And what do they do in winter?" "Hibernate," says one.
Karen is not a teacher but one of a new breed of classroom assistants taken off the unemployment register. A mother of two, she hadn't worked for five years until last April when she joined a one-year classroom assistants project run by Manchester Adult Education Service.
Most of north Manchester's classroom assistants are mothers aged 25 to 40 who've been unemployed for several years. They work three-and-a-half days a week at schools which their children attend so the hours fit in with childcare arrangements. And they earn pound;130 a week.
Now the project, jointly funded by Manchester Training and Enterprise Council and North Manchester Regeneration Limited, is being adopted as a model for other English education authorities.
Back at Charlestown primary, Karen's artistic talents have found a home. She points to her handiwork in the infants' library where she's created a palm tree from an old parasol and animal floor cushions in the shape of a hippopotamus, an elephant, a crocodile and a lion. There's also a panda seat with headphones hanging from its ears, where children listen to tapes. "The idea was to create a study space which children would enjoy and see as fun," says Karen.
A high proportion of the school's 360 pupils are disadvantaged - 58 per cent receive free school meals; there is a high proportion of single parents and 22 per cent of pupils are transitory, from families on the move.
Against this backdrop, classroom assistants play a crucial role. headteacher Sandy Spence says: "We need to give as much support to these children as possible, they benefit from one-to-one tuition."
Critics could argue the classroom is no place for amateurs. But this group of nine assistants chosen from 60 applicants (they need basic literacy and numeracy skills, and experience of working with children to qualify for the scheme) study for the Classroom Assistant Certificate (equivalent to an NVQ level two) for one-and-a-half days a week.
About 26 schools applied to take the 10 classroom assistants. Project co-ordinator Peter Gittins, a former primary headteacher, says schools welcome an extra pair of hands to free teachers from routine tasks. "But they also value the assistants' attention on small groups."
Julie Kelleher, 28, based at Lily Lane infants, Moston, says it's "very fulfilling" seeing underachievers improve. "One little boy was so frustrated at not being able to learn letters, he hit himself on the head. I spent two to thee hours a week with him. He came on leaps and bounds."
Headteachers are also impressed. Theresa Mullin, head of Holy Trinity primary, Blackley, says: "Our assistant has been very much part of the team."
Dave Smith, head of St Wilfrid's primary, Newton Heath, points to the low levels of education among parents. "The scheme not only benefits us but shows parents ways forward." Alf Edwards, head of Moston Lane primary, Moston, says they are "great value for money".
One of the aims of the initiative is to help unemployed people find work and encourage some into teacher training. Catherine Tierney, 25, a mother-of-two who has no formal qualifications, says: "It's very rewarding to be paid, and achieve a qualification for a job I love and was previously doing voluntarily."
In Manchester, however, it is a bitter irony that having founded this scheme, some schools cannot afford to employ their classroom assistants beyond the end of the scheme this April.
Julie Kelleher has been lucky - she was appointed to a permanent post in December and will continue her training until Easter on day release.
But Catherine, who is based at her children's school, Christ the King primary, Culcheth, is agitated by the lack of a future: "Our scheme finishes in the spring, just as the national tests start. It feels as though we've been given the perfect job for a year and then it's snatched away. When it finishes, we'll all be really upset."
* A WEEK IN THE LIFE OF A CLASSROOM ASSISTANT
Karen Cunningham was encouraged by teachers at Charlestown to become a classroom assistant after she helped with displays and reading stories on a voluntary basis.
"I didn't see myself as having a career," admits Karen, who has two O-levels in English and art. "I was dreadful at school. I'd bunk off. Now, of course, I'm sorry for not making the most of myself then. But this job has increased my self-confidence no end.
"I love the work, especially being able to offer time to special needs children, it's a real buzz seeing them improve."
During the autumn term Karen worked mainly with years 3 and 4 on key stage 2 .
Monday: Working with small groups of special needs children, 30 minutes at a time to concentrate on science and history.
Tuesday: College - studying for the Classroom Assistant Certificate. Subjects include understanding literacy and language development, evaluating literacy activities, developing professional skills, understanding and managing children's behaviour.
Wednesday: maths, science and history with special needs pupils.
Thursday: general duties such as photocopying and restructuring the lower junior's library.
Friday: morning: helping high achievers with writing. Afternoon: back to college to learn interview techniques, self assertiveness, and how to perfect curriculum vitae.