Brave new world

A Government deal reduces teachers' workloads by allowing classroom assistants to take lessons. Sarah Cassidy visits a school where it works
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The Independent Online

Sandra Wallis loves teaching. Since September she has taught all kinds of lessons to classes of seven- and eight-year-olds at Cassiobury Junior School, in Watford. "I really enjoy working with the children - whether it is helping individual children, small groups, large groups or the whole class," she says.

She doesn't clean paint pots, put up displays or do routine filing and labelling, because they're taken care of by a personal assistant to the teaching staff. However, Sandra is not a teacher - and does not aspire to become one. A former childminder, she is a teaching assistant (TA) who has been working with qualified teachers teaching Year 3 pupils for the past four years.

"I'm now taking whole classes, which would have been unheard of when I first started," she says. "My job has definitely changed. I'm a TA and now I really do assist with the teaching."

Sandra is one of thousands of classroom assistants who have seen their roles change as part of the Government's drive to cut teachers' workloads and give greater responsibility to classroom assistants. It is 15 months since the signing of the historic workload agreement. Already, changes to teachers' contracts mean that they no longer have to do routine tasks such as collecting dinner money or putting up classroom displays. In the next two years teachers' conditions will change further: a limit will be placed on the amount of time they have to cover for absent colleagues and they will be allowed to spend 10 per cent of their working week out of the classroom on marking and preparation.

But the agreement has been controversial from the start. The largest teaching union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), refused to sign it, warning that it would allow unqualified adults to take lessons and undermine the status of the profession. David Miliband, the School Standards Minister who has overseen the changes, describes the transformation as "one of the biggest structural changes in the organisation of teaching and support of teachers for generations".

He adds: "It's going very well. I say this not because everything is perfect but because I think right across the country there is a really serious engagement by heads and teachers to raise standards."

But while some teachers are spending their new-found freedom joining gyms, taking up new hobbies or spending more time with their families, there are continuing concerns that the money for the changes isn't there. This weekend, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) will debate a motion demanding that the union pull out of the agreement.

And another teaching union suggests that the workload agreement isn't working. A survey made public at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' conference this month said that almost half of schools had failed to make any moves to reduce teachers' workload. Forty-two per cent of teachers were still being expected to do routine tasks such as photocopying and filing, even though the agreement should have done away with these responsibilities.

Money, rather than lack of motivation is the problem. The 32 pathfinder schools in which the workload agreement was piloted received extra funding of up to £250,000 each. Teacher hours were reduced by almost four hours to give them an average working week of 50 hours. But the study that evaluated the pilots questioned whether the changes would continue once the money dried up.

Miliband is adamant that the money will be there. At the same time, he says that not all workforce reform needs money. The most generous budget for the changes will come in 2005/06 and will give all teachers 10 per cent of time out of the classroom, he says. But he rules out extra money - or ring-fencing funds. "I want schools to have three-year budgets and to have flexibility with them," he says. "That mitigates against me saying 'thou shalt spend x pounds on this or that.' I am averse to the creation of any new bit of ring-fencing."

David Hart, the NAHT's general secretary, remains unconvinced. "I still do not think we will have enough cash," he says. "We certainly need ring-fenced funds." John Bangs, the NUT's head of education, is totally against classroom assistants taking lessons, fearing that it could be the start of a Government strategy to replace qualified teachers with unqualified adults. The deal has not reduced the workload of many teachers and has made them fearful that their professional status is being undermined, he believes.

But staff at Cassiobury school are genuinely delighted at the changes that have seen the hiring of a personal assistant (PA) for teachers. Her tasks include doing their filing, collating pupils' marks, ordering supplies and even doing some routine marking. The PA also covers pupils' books, sticks their work in folders and mounts work for classroom displays.

Allowing teaching assistants to take lessons gives teachers time for marking and preparation at Cassiobury. "Enrichment afternoons", held roughly once a month, enable all teachers and teaching assistants to meet while pupils enjoy activities such as drama, cooking and badminton under the watchful eye of volunteers.

One of the teachers whose class is sometimes taken by Sandra is Kim Paine, a qualified teacher with 25 years' experience. Sandra's help enables Kim to take small groups of pupils out of the classroom for extra help and has given her time away from lessons to do marking and preparation. "My teaching assistant is perfectly capable of delivering a lesson," says Kim, who has worked at Cassiobury for 10 years. "We share planning. She is emailed the plans every weekend so she knows in advance what we are doing."

However, Paine voices more general fears that the plans for teaching assistants to do more of teachers' work could undermine teachers' professional standing across the country. "My big concern with the Government is that teachers have worked very hard to gain their professional status," she says. "We are a profession and I do not want to see that diminished by using less qualified people because it is cheaper. Most of us have trained for at least three years to get qualified teacher status, and I've got 25 years of experience in the classroom and been on numerous courses. I worry that the Government might ask classroom assistants to do too much. Not all of them will want to take on these extra responsibilities."

At the same time, she agrees that the changes have made her job more enjoyable by giving her more time to do what she loves most - teaching. "I still take work home, but now it's more likely to be things that are more directly related to the children's learning than before."

However, Paine continues to put up her own classroom displays, something that she does not have to do under the new dispensation. "I like my displays to reflect me and my teaching in the classroom. They are a very personal thing and I just wouldn't feel comfortable with someone else doing them," she says. "That said, our PA now saves me a lot of time by doing all the mounting and preparation of the work and getting it ready for me to put up."

The head teacher, Chris Kronda, is a passionate advocate of workforce reform and is adamant that his initiatives are not an attempt to provide teaching on the cheap. With a positive attitude and strong leadership, all schools can transform their working practices, he says.

"Saying 'I can't' never got anybody anywhere. Schools never have enough money. The important thing is to think what you are able to do - get a few improvements under your belt and you'll be surprised how everybody gets on board."