A 21st-century way of teaching 21st-century kids

The Government's proposals to increase the responsibilities of classroom assistants can only be a help to the overburdened teaching profession, says Richard Garner
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If Estelle Morris did not know it last Monday, she should by now be realising how difficult it will be to get agreement on modernising the teaching profession. Many of the "responses" she made to the PricewaterhouseCoopers draft report on reducing workload will have struck a chord with teachers' leaders. They were not really responses, I suppose, since they were leaked before the report was delivered to teachers' leaders but after details of its conclusions also leaked out before the weekend.

Yes, she said, there would be more classroom assistants employed in schools. There would be more teachers employed, too. The extra staff would take some of the administrative burdens away from teachers and banish such things as photocopying and washing paint pots from their list of chores forever, and there would be more time out of the classroom for marking and preparing lessons.

All well and good so far. Then came the passage that the teachers' unions would describe as the sting in the tail. Oh, and yes, the classroom assistants would be able to take lessons for teachers if work had been set for the pupils or if a teacher was absent. Ludicrous, claimed one teachers' union. Dangerous, barked another, the pupils would reduce them to quivering wrecks in no time. They should not be used as "cheap substitutes" for teachers was a third response.

Of course, it is not a good time for the Government to say it wants classroom assistants to take on more responsibilities. Surveys vary about the extent of teacher shortages in our state schools. But one thing they are all agreed on is that good quality recruits are in short supply. So, Estelle Morris' suggestion looks as if it is a short-term panic measure to overcome staffing difficulties.

It is not. It is a logical way of helping the teaching profession reduce the massive workload it has to shoulder.

Therefore I beg to differ with the teachers' unions. Having visited many schools in the past year and talked to classroom assistants, I have found many would like to become teachers. They work well with pupils and are a rich source for plugging those staffing gaps that are threatening to derail the improvements in standards we have seen in our schools in the past few years.

Of course, you would not throw them in at the deep end and greet them with: "So glad you've come, would you take 3C while I go and take my valium tablets?" I don't imagine Estelle Morris had this scenario in mind when she made the suggestion. There will be training and a properly validated certificate for classroom assistants available in the New Year. In addition, many are already being encouraged by their heads to start access courses, which will pave the way to enrolling to train as a teacher. Surely it would be a useful preparation to train on the job.

Discussions will now start between the Government and the teachers' unions on the PricewaterhouseCoopers report. It will be a lengthy process but will aim to reach agreement on a package that can be presented to the teachers' independent pay review body early next year. If the Government and the unions can agree, the pay review body won't ignore that fact. And agreement bodes well for extracting the necessary funding from the Chancellor Gordon Brown's comprehensive spending review in the summer.

Both sides need to remember that in the months ahead. That is why it is not helpful at this stage to dismiss what could be a vital part of the final package as "ludicrous". Also, incidentally, it is not helpful at this stage for Ms Morris to talk of the need to "fight and defeat" opponents of the package. Now is the time for co-operation rather than confrontation.

When Ms Morris says that teaching will change beyond recognition in the next 10 years, she is right. It will not be because government dogma is driving the change but simply because of the changes in the technological world in which we live. Teachers will have to cope with new ways of working and new technological advances.

Success in the discussions that are about to take place is crucial to helping Tony Blair deliver on his pledge of a world-class education service. Much more important than that, however, it is essential for the pupils, who will be charged with the responsibility of making sure the next generation is ready to take up the challenges of the 21st century.