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Vital, by any other title

A new national qualification will at last give teaching assistants the recognition they deserve. Joel Wolchover reports.

Julie Best's first job at Crown Lane primary school was in the kitchens. Since then, she's been a midday meals supervisor, a primary helper, a classroom assistant and a learning support assistant. Now, after outlasting a succession of teachers and headteachers during her 15 years at the 200-pupil school in Streatham, in the London borough of Lambeth, she is described as a teaching assistant. It is the title she likes best.

"I started in the kitchens when my youngest went to school. I was there for a couple of years, then I started supervising the children during the lunch break. Finally I got the chance to start working in the classroom, which I jumped at," she says.

"Back then, we used to be called primary helpers and, basically, you just washed paint pots. Now we are given more responsibility, which is great. You are working with children and seeing them improve.

"I'm involved when my teacher is doing planning, so I know what's going on. As a primary helper you'd never know about that. The name teaching assistant makes us sound more professional - and it's what we do."

Mrs Best's changes of title reflect her own career progress, but they also show how the status of support staff has changed over the years. There are no national qualifications for teaching assistants - or even nationally recognised standards for the training they do receive. But all that is set to change with the launch of a national vocational qualification for classroom assistants, based on standards drawn up by the Local Government National Training Organisation (LGNTO).

Four qualifications-awarding bodies are developing NVQs and, although their introduction has been delayed until September, Lambeth College has launched a pilot with 40 places, funded by the London Central Learning and Skills Council (LSC). The NVQ will be available at level 2, equivalent to GCSE grades A* to C, or level 3, to A-level standard. Each level will take around a year to complete, but previous experience or training will allow assistants to fast-track through the relevant units.

On the Lambeth course, each trainee will progress at his or her own pace, although they will be expected to attend some evening classes at college and do homework in their own time. They will also be released one day a month for further college sessions and tutors will visit them in their schools to assess their work in the classroom.

Compulsory units include helping with classroom resources and records, helping with the care and support of pupils, providing support for learning activities and providing effective support for colleagues. Trainees must also choose from a range of optional units, including supporting literacy and numeracy, contributing to the maintenance of pupil behaviour and helping pupils with additional learning needs.

London Central LSC manager Joyce Roberts, who is supervising the introduction of the NVQ, says more than 100 short training courses are now available for teaching assistants. The advantage of the NVQ is that it will provide a consistent benchmark.

"Teaching assistants are valuable members of the school workforce," she says. "This sort of accreditation of their skills will help to recognise their contribution and give them a more professional status."

Mrs Best, a 43-year-old mother of two, has the full backing of her headteacher, Yvonne Steel, who employs eight teaching assistants for her school's seven classes (two job-share one class). Five are keen to do the NVQ course but Mrs Steel feels this would mean too many absences, so only two will enrol in the pilot.

"Most teaching assistants are keen to be trained, and even those who do not feel confident about their skills are willing to give it a go with a bit of cajoling," she says.

"The onslaught of initiatives such as the literacy and numeracy strategies means a growing need for teaching assistants to help deliver the materials. But it's important that they get high-quality training that makes them more effective, otherwise there's no point to it."

Mrs Best has already received training through Lambeth LEA to help her provide literacy support to children at the lower end of the ability range and to help her assist children with special needs.

The training means she can now support a group of six children using prepared literacy materials. She also helps a child who has difficulty settling down before lessons, using a calming therapy recommended by an occupational therapist that involves stroking the child's hands and forearms. "I want to get more involved in working with and supporting the children. It's something I love - and it's why I take all the courses I can," she says.

But, she stresses, there is a big difference between helping the teacher and being the teacher - a point the teaching unions have accused Education Secretary Estelle Morris of misunder-standing. Ms Morris's well-publicised speech to the Social Market Foundation in November 2001, and the pamphlet that accompanied it, argued that teaching assistants should be given a wider role in the classroom, and included a suggestion that pupils would "engage in self-directed learning, supported by teaching assistants". The Department for Education and Skills subsequently claimed that it meant only that assistants could cover for sudden teacher absences.

But even this limited "teaching" role is likely to face strong resistance. As Yvonne Steel says: "Having a good teaching assistant in the classroom is a godsend, but they are no substitute. We have to be careful that we don't muddle where expertise and responsibilities in the classroom lie.

"The teacher should be the person who knows the curriculum, who knows the needs of individual children and how those children make progress. The teacher has to be the person in charge of curriculum delivery. You could give a class a whole set of worksheets and ask the teaching assistant to supervise them, but you couldn't describe what they are doing as teaching or what the children are doing as learning.

"We are not going to get away with raising standards on the cheap. If we want quality people in the classroom, in whatever role, we will have to pay for them."

Mrs Best agrees. "I feel confident that I could hold a class together, but not to teach a lesson because I'm not qualified to do that, and it would be going too far. What's more, if you look at what many teachers are paid compared with what we get, it wouldn't be right to expect us to take a whole class. It's not all about money, but for that sort of responsibility you should get paid appropriately."

At pound;8.06 an hour, Mrs Best is relatively well paid, according to public sector union Unison, which represents school support staff. The union's recent report, Making a Difference, found the average is around pound;5 an hour. Wide variation is possible because, unlike teachers'

nationally agreed pay scales, assistants' rates are set by local education authorities. What's more, many assistants are employed only during term time and cannot find other paid work, or claim benefits, during school holidays.

Unison spokeswoman Jane Robinson says the union's research indicates that teaching assistants receive between one and 10 days' training a year, more than a third of it undertaken in their own time. "They are among the worst paid of all our members, yet the majority say they love their job and would recommend it to others. This is an incredibly dedicated workforce and we are pushing hard to have their contribution to schools properly recognised."

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