The Government has acknowledged the growing contribution of classroom assistants and announced that it wants to increase their numbers from 57, 000 to 77,000 by 2002.
But a survey commissioned by Unison has confirmed that their growing status is still not reflected in their salaries or contracts of employment.
The study, which was carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research, revealed that almost 80 per cent of teachers' assistants earn less than #163;7,000 a year. Most are on the bottom two rungs of the local government pay ladder - regardless of their years of service and qualifications. And some are denied paid leave for training.
The survey, which drew responses from 767 classroom assistants and 549 primary headteachers, also confirmed that only 50 per cent of assistants have a permanent employment contract.
The union responded by saying it would be campaigning for a career structure that "recognises and rewards" classroom assistants' increased responsibility. It also believes they should be much more involved in school and lesson planning.
Keith Sonnet, Unison's head of local government, acknowledged that most of the classroom assistants (86 per cent) said that they were either very satisfied or satisfied with their job. But this did not undermine the union's campaign for improved pay and conditions.
"The commitment and enjoyment that they bring to the classroom are precious assets that should be valued and nurtured, not taken for granted and abused, " he said.
Copies of the report, "Survey of classroom assistants", by Barbara Lee and Clare Mawson, can be obtained, priced Pounds 5, from the Unison Communications Department, Civic House, 20 Grand Depot Road, London SE18 6SF (0181-854-2244)