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Workforce deal needs real respect

The National Union of Teachers is often presented as the lonely spoilsport who wants to kill off the workforce agreement that promises a better life for teachers in England and Wales. But the thunderous rumblings of discontent within Unison (page 3) are an overdue reminder that it is not only the NUT that has reservations about this historic deal.

The Welsh teachers' union, UCAC, refused to sign the agreement, the National Association of Head Teachers is threatening to withdraw over funding and the General Teaching Council for Wales also has misgivings.

While welcoming the Welsh Assembly government's moves to reduce teacher workloads and employ more support staff, the GTCW insists there should be no erosion of the teacher's role and status. Its position is summed up in a mantra that sounds like an oath of allegiance: "One class, one lesson, one teacher."

It is an understandable stance to adopt, particularly as the GTCW is responsible for maintaining professional standards. But factions within Unison are equally loath to see classroom assistants being used as stopgap teachers. Why should assistants be expected to take on whole-class teaching when many of them earn less than cleaners? A survey that Unison conducted in 2002 with the support of The TES revealed that assistants in at least two Welsh authorities were earning as little as pound;4.95 an hour. In another Welsh authority, half the assistants had received no training in the previous year.

Conditions have since improved in some local authorities but Unison acknowledges that too many LEAs have not even begun discussions on new terms of employment. This is perhaps unsurprising as the focus of attention has been on ways of reducing the "administrivia" that prevents teachers from concentrating on key teaching tasks. But it is high time that the often undervalued army of school support staff were given more consideration. If they are deemed capable of taking on a bigger role - which must be clearly defined - they should be treated with much more respect.

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