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teaching assistants They struggle for acceptance by staff and unknowing parents and bear brunt of school violence

Teaching assistants are struggling to gain respect and recognition from teachers, students and parents, despite their increasingly critical role in the classroom.

They are key to the government's agreement with employers and unions to free up teachers from administrative work and some are taking on classes to allow teachers planning time.

But new research and figures show:

* More than one in three parents are unaware of the role played by a teaching assistant in their child's education.

* Increased incidence of assaults by students with anecdotal reports that teaching assistants are bearing the brunt.

* Newly qualified teachers feel under-prepared to work with teaching assistants, seeing them as a "potential threat to the teacher's professional identity".

The number of full-time equivalent support staff in schools has more than doubled in a decade from 136,500 to 287,500. Among them are 13,741 higher level training assistants (HLTAs), with another 3,001 in the process of qualifying for that status.

HLTAs are qualified to perform more skilled teaching roles, including taking classes to allow teachers the half a day a week they are entitled to for lesson preparation and marking.

The Training and Development Agency oversees the HLTA programme, and said they are making a difference.

But an NOP survey commissioned by the agency shows that while 63 per cent of parents were aware of the teaching assistants at their child's school, 37 per cent were not.

An agency spokesman said its annual Teachers' Survey indicated that most new teachers felt adequately equipped to work with teaching assistants. He said: "HLTAs and teaching assistants often work as part of a team so the important role they play may not be obvious to parents, whose contact is mainly with their child's teacher."

A study by Linda Fursland at Bath Spa university shows that relatively few newly qualified teachers felt well-trained enough to work with teaching assistants. And there was still tension about whether assistants pose a threat to teachers' professional identity.

Matthew Thomson, an HLTA at Fairfields special needs school in Northampton, said some newly qualified teachers could feel nervous working with teaching assistants. "You could have someone with 20 years' experience who has become an HLTA and a newly qualified teacher who has been there one day,"

he said.

"I think that they may feel threatened but it's about how they handle it."

Figures from the NASUWT union and Department for Education and Skills indicate a raised incidence of students physically assaulting adults at school.

Mr Thomson said it was inevitable that teaching assistants would be the subject of more pupil assaults because they were working beside the students, rather than standing at the front of the class like teachers.

Bruni de la Motte from Unison, a union representing teaching assistants, said there was often a problem with violence in pupil referral units, which had high numbers of teaching assistants.

"Teaching assistants do really difficult work and the violence doesn't get recognised in their pay," she said.

Mr Thomson said that he ensured parents knew the role he played by getting to know them.

He said: "I speak to parents regularly on a face-to-face basis and I also write notes in the pupils' books so their parents can see what they've been doing and how they are progressing." Lesley Sloane, at Twynham school in Christchurch, Dorset, said she had compared notes with other teaching assistants.

She said: "It was obvious that the wealth of experience and expertise we had as a group was of great benefit to our individual school communities but not always recognised."

Chris Croucher, a teaching assistant at Woodlands primary in Merseyside, said she was more than just a childminder. "You are not going into a classroom to babysit," she said.

"You are going in to play an involved role in the learning activities and even deliver parts of a class. Obviously I am not a teacher but I do have a great deal of experience with pupils."

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said it had provided information to parents about the important role played by teaching assistants.

It also required teacher trainees to show they knew how to plan and organise with the help of support staff.

Any threatening behaviour or violence towards staff was unacceptable, he said.

New legislation will provide "the first ever statutory power to discipline". The spokesman added: "In addition, we are confirming the right of all staff to restrain pupils where their behaviour may be a risk to others."

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