Will the grown-ups at the back please listen?

17th October 1997 at 01:00
Teachers have to cope not only with the children but also an increasing number of adult assistants - who can cause problems of their own. Gerald Haigh shows how to manage the situation

Here is an examination question which you will not find being set for the finals of a Postgraduate Certificate in Education course: "Acacia Avenue primary has seven classes. So when a teacher has a birthday, how many cream cakes do you think she has to bring to the staffroom?" What would be a sensible answer to this. Eight, including one for the head? A dozen, including the secretary and the cleaners? Not a bit of it. The correct answer is quite likely to be at least 20, for one of the most noticeable things about today's primaries is the number of adults you find working in the classrooms, particularly in the infants.

It is not unusual to see, in addition to the teacher, a general classroom assistant, a special needs support assistant, two parent or grandparent volunteers, and a secondary school pupil on work experience. Of these, the paid assistants may have been well- trained on a specialist course run by the local authority or a university. The parent volunteers might have been prepared by the school for the task of hearing readers. The work experience pupil will probably be willing and pleasant, but not really able to do anything without direct supervision.

For the teacher, all of this presents a considerable management challenge over and above the already full-time task of running a class of 30 or so young children. A key stage 1 teacher cannot easily, for example, take her attention away from the class to run a briefing or discussion with her assistants.

This means that, for each session of the day, each of her supporting adults has to have a clear idea not only of what to do, but also of how to cope with unexpected changes of plan. Where this is not the case, and there is inadequate management of adult helpers, there is a real danger of frustration and ill-tempered encounters which are of no help to children's learning. For example, a teacher who feels that a classroom helper is unable to think creatively about the job may end up openly saying that she would be better off without any help at all. The helper, for her part, may be grumbling to colleagues that she is wasting her time because the teacher will not tell her clearly what to do.

There are other dangers, too. One was described to me by a registered inspector who had observed it at first hand: "A young and inexperienced teacher finds herself in a reception or nursery class with two very experienced helpers and is unable to assert her leadership. The helpers then effectively ensure that the class is run the way they like it." Where this kind of thing is allowed to continue, the fault obviously lies with senior management's inability to see either the problem or do something about it.

I asked the same inspector whether the management of classroom support was an inspection issue. The answer, of course, was that it most certainly was. "What we look for is whether the way the helpers are being used actually helps to further children's learning. In good schools there is a whole-school policy covering the work and training of classroom helpers and volunteers."

There are wide professional implications here. If teachers can clearly establish that part of their job is to manage a competent and respected team of "para-professionals" then their own professionalism can only be enhanced.


* Include all helpers and assistants in staff development. Try to find high- quality training, with accreditation if possible, for classroom assistants. Run regular basic training (say once a term, to keep up with turnover) for parent volunteers.

* Clarify the roles. The teacher makes professional decisions - thus, for example, as a Birmingham classroom assistant put it, "I would report fully on the errors a child was making in her reading, but the teacher would decide what to do about them." Over time, a good partnership may develop to the point where boundaries are less rigid, but the basic position should always be clear.

* Classroom helpers and special needs assistants should be involved in day-to-day planning meetings. This makes sure that they can work relatively unsupervised during the day, and it ensures that the teacher is affirmed as leader of the team.

* As well as planning time, helpers should also be given review time with teachers, perhaps at lunchtime or the end of the day.

* Try not to reject, or complain about, keen parent volunteers who seem to lack skills. "Wherever they are, that is your starting point with them," is how one head on a Coventry housing estate puts it.

* The same head points out that: "This means that heads may have to work on the attitudes of teachers who are sometimes unwilling to spend time on the development of volunteers."

* Monitoring of the classroom work of all teachers should include the way they manage support staff and volunteers. Consider whether this should be a specific item to be discussed in staff appraisal, for example, or a topic for part of a training day.

* This is particularly important for newly-qualified teachers. The management of adult helpers is rarely tackled on teacher education courses, and on teaching practice the issues are masked by the controlling presence of the incumbent class teacher - and by the desire of most helpers to see the student succeed. A busy new teacher may lean heavily on an experienced classroom assistant, which is fine so long as the roles are clear on both sides. It is management's responsibility to keep an eye on this.

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