School classes in Wales will no longer have to be taken by qualified teachers, opening the door to a "two-tier teaching system", opposition politicians claimed this week. New regulations that form part of the national agreement to reduce teachers' workload were pushed through by the Labour government in the Welsh Assembly, despite furious protests from the opposition.
Under the new guidelines, classroom assistants, or anyone else deemed suitable by the headteacher, will help plan and prepare lessons and could end up teaching pupils themselves. David Davies, the Conservatives'
education spokesperson, said this would be the "educational equivalent of a Trojan horse".
"Many schools, due to cuts in funding, would feel pressure to use classroom assistants to take classes and it would open the door to undermining the role of teachers," he said.
Janet Ryder, Plaid Cymru's education spokesperson, said the regulations would lead to "teaching on the cheap".
"We recognise that classroom assistants and technicians have a valuable role to play, but they are not qualified teachers. It is the government's way of meeting the workload agreement commitment, but if more teachers are needed then more qualified teachers should be recruited."
But education and lifelong learning minister Jane Davidson insisted that the roles of teachers and support staff were not "interchangeable". She said: "My aim is to enable teachers to focus their time and efforts on those duties which do require their professional input, while enabling others to take on some of the other duties in a regulated way.
"These regulations provide the legislative safeguards for headteachers, teachers and support staff who wish to work as a flexible and coherent team, providing a wide range of well-planned opportunities for their pupils' education."
Similar regulations to ease the burden on overworked teachers have already been adopted in England, complete with training courses for support staff.
But Peter Black, education spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said the regulations left the role of unqualified staff in Wales unclear.
"The lack of training accreditation and pay scales for support staff only creates more confusion."
Allowing assistants to work in this way is seen as key to reducing teachers' workload, but unions remain split on the issue. The National Union of Teachers Cymru and UCAC, the Welsh-medium teachers' union, have refused to sign the agreement. The General Teaching Council for Wales has warned of "blurring" the roles of support staff and teachers, while support staff union Unison also recently voted to suspend its involvement in the agreement.
From September 2005, all teachers are meant to have a half-day a week non-contact time.
But Moelwen Gwyndaf, general secretary of UCAC, said: "If these regulations hadn't been passed the government would have had to give an extra 10 per cent funding to schools to provide extra teachers for September 2005. Heads may now have to put classroom assistants in front of classes and this is bound to have a detrimental effect on standards."
NUT Cymru secretary Gethin Lewis, said: "It is a sad day for Wales when the principle of a qualified, graduate teaching force is casually cast away."
But Geraint Davies, secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers Cymru, said the regulations would help to implement the workload agreement.