"LABOURERS OF LOVE" and "captives of love" is how classroom assistants are described by the Equal Opportunities Commission.
Its report this week, Valuable assets - a general formal investigation into the role and status of classroom assistants in Scottish schools, argues that the 15,000 classroom assistants in Scotland make a significant contribution to the education and development of Scotland's children and young people and that their work is going largely unrecognised.
"Classroom assistants are nearly all female, term-time workers and are amongst the lowest paid government workers in Scotland, earning as little as Pounds 5.68 an hour," according to the EOC.
The report raises the controversial issue of where they fit into local government pay and grading structures.
Peter Hunter, the legal officer for Unison, which represents the bulk of classroom assistants, said: "We have already got a backlog of 1,500 equal pay cases for classroom assistants either lodged or in the process of being lodged with employment tribunals.
"This report makes it clear why Unison has so many cases. It would be better if authorities came to an agreed settlement to deliver fair treatment to classroom assistants both for past discrimination and future pay scales."
But Pat Watters, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said: "Of course classroom assistants have a right to equal pay. Scottish councils recognise this and are using agreed methods of 'measuring' jobs to ensure it happens. But the emotive language used by the EOC does no service to the important role that classroom assistants play in our schools."
He added that classroom assistant roles were already being evaluated using a system agreed with trade unions which, when introduced eight years ago, attracted no adverse comments from the Equal Opportunities Commission.
The commission wants to see:
* the development of a national framework of job roles to establish a career progression route;
* the development of a new "support for learning" Higher National Certificate;
* the remit of the General Teach-ing Council for Scotland to be expanded to include the development and promotion of skills, qualifications and standards for classroom assistants;
* changes to pay and conditions.
But the most contentious element of the report will be its suggestion that some classroom assistants are acting beyond their duties, as quasi-teachers.
One assistant told The TESS: "There are local authorities where assistants are being left with classes and writing learning plans. In mainstream schools, it is really getting quite out of control.
"Should you ask the council, they'll say 'it doesn't happen', but it happens every day. There are classroom assistants who are unhappy with the workload they are given, because it is outwith their remit."
She said some schools had little option if they have a teacher off and they cannot find supply cover. "Headteachers have their backs to the wall. In a way we shoot ourselves in the foot sometimes by being too prepared to help out."
The report seems likely to become a political football between the SNP minority administration and Labour.
Ken Macintosh, Labour's shadow spokesman for schools and skills, called on the SNP to recognise the contribution of classroom assistants, and published an exchange five years ago between the then education minister, Cathy Jamieson, and SNP MSP Colin Campbell, when she asked: "Does he agree that the class-room assistants programme has offered the opportunity to give teachers more time to be directly involved with pupils? Does he agree that the adult-pupil ratio is the crucial factor?"
Mr Campbell replied: "No. I am sorry but, as a teacher, I can accept that having classroom assistants has a value - in tying laces, wiping noses, sharpening pencils."
Scissors have been thrown at Sandra Drummond, she has been deliberately tripped up in the classroom and she has been hit by pupils on a weekly basis. Yet, according to the Equal Opportunities Commission, she is among the lowest paid workers in the public sector.
As a support assistant in Pinewood School in Livingston, Mrs Drummond works with some of the most profoundly physically disabled children. She has to meet their physical care needs such as changing nappies, lifting pupils (some of whom are teenagers), dispensing medication and feeding them - as well as dealing with children who have autism and rare syndromes which can cause violence, aggression and lack of empathy.
But Mrs Drummond never blames the children for their actions. "It is the nature of the disorder," she said. "These kids are not aware of the consequences of their actions. The kid who sticks his foot out to trip you up as you are going past does it because he thinks it is funny - he doesn't realise."
The 41-year-old mother of two teenage boys has worked as an assistant for nine years - at Pinewood for the last two - and earns less than pound;10,000 a year.
Like many others, she was drawn to it because of a family member's circumstances.
She said: "My nephew had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and I found some of the people he was coming across in education couldn't see past his behaviour. I thought: 'I need to do something about this', so I volunteered a couple of days a week."
From there, Mrs Drummond registered on West Lothian Council's supply list, and within a few days was offered two jobs. "I cried for the first week - just realising how vulnerable these kids were," she said. "But the special needs school is where I had my most rewarding experience. There have been days when I thought: 'I don't get paid enough for this.' I get hit maybe once or twice a week, but it is not something that affects how I do my job."
However, she still feels it is the most rewarding thing she has ever done, and is now leaving the school to train as a special needs teacher.
"There are few precious moments, because it is a long, drawn out process to achieve anything with these kids," Ms Drummond said.
"But it is the little things, such as when you have been working with a child for a couple of years and they have never said much, won't make eye contact and, out of the blue, they say your name or they suddenly say a word you have been trying to teach them. That is what makes it all worthwhile."