'We are all in this together'

Assistants pose an opportunity, not a threat, says school standards minister David Miliband. Judith Judd reports

Teachers must stop thinking in terms of "them and us" in the debate about the role of classroom assistants, says David Miliband, the school standards minister.

As the Government prepares to announce its plans for reforming the profession by drafting more non-teachers into schools, Mr Miliband told The TES: "I hope we can get over this idea of them and us, teachers versus the rest. It is actually them with us."

Teachers and union leaders are worried that lower-paid support staff will be employed effectively as teachers as part of ministers' package to ease the profession's workload.

Mr Miliband says: "In my view the prospect of a range of adults helping teachers is an opportunity, not a threat. I hope there has been a bit of a sea change over the past couple of years as many more schools have benefited from such help, for example, from learning mentors."

The former head of the Downing Street policy unit, who secured his new job after a single year as an MP, is ambitious, he says, to make schools better and in particular to break down the barriers which hold back disadvantaged children.

He stands by an article he wrote in The TES in which he advocated an experiment which involved spending as much on a group of inner-city pupils as an independent school would.

"But it's not government policy," he adds, wearing his new ministerial hat.

His ambition stops short of making state schools so good that private education would disappear. Instead, he says: "I would like to see the state sector as good as it can be. Let's under-promise and over-deliver. I have great belief in the potential of state schools to be agents of social progress and equal opportunity."

Asked about the Prime Minister's decision to have his sons tutored privately, he replies that it is right for parents to want to do the best for their children. "If you buy your child a book at Christmas, is it good parenting or is it giving them an unfair advantage? I would say it's good parenting."

If children in state schools need extra help, we should be trying to give it to them, through the summer schools and out-of-hours classes about which he is so enthusiastic.

One of the biggest challenges is to persuade more pupils to stay on at 16. It is a national shame and disgrace, he argues, that we come 20th out of 24 developed countries in the staying-on-rate league for 17-year-olds and above only Mexico and Turkey for participation in education at 18.

And he has not forgotten primary schools. He contests the idea that the curriculum is focused too narrowly on literacy and numeracy. "I don't have any truck with the idea that you have to choose between teaching children to read and write or being creative. Teachers are right to seek to deepen and enrich the primary curriculum."

Meanwhile, he says: "Progress has to continue. Our primary schools have broken a culture of cynicism which says improvement is impossible. People around the world want to learn from them."

News, 9 Leader,22

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