Growing numbers of schools are seeking teaching assistants with degrees, according to evidence gathered by a teaching union, which claims that the tactic is an attempt to recruit “teachers on the cheap”.
An “alarming trend” has begun to emerge of schools stating that degree qualifications are “desirable” in job adverts for TAs – despite the institutions offering significantly less pay than an average graduate salary, the ATL teaching union has said.
It is concerned that some secondaries are using classroom learning assistants to cover for absent teachers, while offering full-time salaries as low as £13,105 a year.
And there are fears that TAs who have acquired an NVQ to be a TA rather than a teacher could lose out to more “desirable” graduates being offered a taster for teaching.
The ATL believes that the growing trend could be a consequence of the government’s decision last year to abandon the publication of the professional standards of teaching assistants – which laid out how the professional role of a TA differs from that of a teacher.
Keren Townsend, a teaching assistant from Avon, Somerset, told the union’s annual conference in Liverpool last week that she had asked schools minister Nick Gibb why her role was no longer considered to be a “professional” one.
“He replied by asking me why I didn’t go off to train to be a teacher,” she said. “[But] I feel that as a TA I am already doing the job that I want, the job that I am good at and a professional job. Being a TA is not a stepping stone. It is not a transient role…I feel like a professional. I should be treated as a professional by the government.”
‘I don’t want to be a teacher’
Graham Easterlow, from North Yorkshire, told delegates that last year, he had been asked why he was only a member of support staff when he was intelligent, charismatic, and very skilled. “Because I choose to be, because it is something that I want to do,” he said.
Delegates at the conference voted in favour of providing every member with a copy of the professional standards of TAs. They also backed a motion calling for the monitoring of schools’ recruitment of graduate TAs as “teachers on the cheap”.
Cathy Tattersfield, a delegate from Derbyshire, highlighted an East Midlands multi-academy trust that expected classroom learning assistants who supervised pupils when teachers were absent to have degrees. The trust thought it was a good idea as a “stepping stone to teaching”, according to the ATL branch secretary.
Ms Tattersfield acknowledged that it felt “reasonable” for schools to have applications from candidates with degrees and who had an interest in teaching.
But she stressed: “It is still wrong to allow this expectation or aspiration of heads to continue without monitoring. [A degree] is an over-qualification for the role and risks teaching on the cheap.” ATL caseworkers now say this has “become the norm” in secondary academies across the country. But the Association of School and College Leaders says it is has not heard of the trend.
Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of ASCL, said: “We do hear of people asking for an academic qualification in a subject to best help the youngsters, but we have not heard of a pattern of secondary school academies asking for a degree to be desirable or essential.
“It is not unknown for people to apply to TA posts with degrees or teacher qualifications, and it is sometimes known as a route back into teaching. It also helps TAs gain experience before going on to teach, which requires them to have a degree at some point.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Teaching assistants are an integral part of the school workforce and, when well-trained and well-used, can make a valuable contribution to ensuring students reach their full potential.
“Schools are best placed to make informed decisions on how to use their teaching assistants and to set their own expectations including the level of qualifications, skills and experience required.”
‘It’s too much responsibility’
Support staff are increasingly being expected to teach lessons rather than just provide cover, according to a survey of more than 1,750 support staff by the ATL teaching union.
Nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of support staff who responded said that they did not consider the work they do when acting as cover supervisor to be different to that done by supply teachers.
The survey, conducted earlier in the school year, also shows that more than 70 per cent of support staff believed that it was not possible to supervise a class when providing cover supervision without actually teaching.
Peter Morris, ATL’s national official for support staff, told TES: “Increasingly, people are being asked to take on more responsibilities. That is a real problem as they are not qualified to do so. Teaching assistants are expected to cover alone and yet some teachers won’t walk into a classroom without a teaching assistant. It would almost be comical if it wasn’t so serious.”