Although everyone agrees that teacher quality is central to the drive for improved standards, attention has tended to concentrate on initial teacher training.
Michael Barber, a former secondary teacher, and Tim Brighouse, a former chief education officer, argue in their paper that the improvement of teaching quality may require a radical revision of the way classrooms work. In short, the best way to improve teaching may be to supplement the trained teacher with a force of teaching assistants and associates.
They make a strong case. It centres on the assumption that the world has changed drastically, while classroom management has barely altered. Pupils are, almost exclusively, divided into class groups. They are taught, usually, by a lone teacher. Class sizes have fallen sharply over the past 100 years; but the 19th-century model remains largely inviolate.
Does it make sense to continue with a system built on isolated, autonomous teachers? The volume of knowledge is increasing rapidly. Children are often more proficient than their teachers in, say, information technology. How can lone teachers be expected to keep pace?
Teaching associates - skilled people drawn from the school's local community - would help supplement the teacher in the classroom. As Mr Barber and Mr Brighouse suggest, the kind of people who might be persuaded to help out in schools is very diverse: an industrial chemist, say, or a history postgraduate student, or a designer, or an experienced athletics coach.
In some schools, teachers have to devote a large part of their energy helping out children with language problems. Teaching associates might also include ethnic minority language speakers.
Teachers, understandably, feel that their main job is to teach pupils. Many of them have very little time during the day when they are not in class; teachers in small primary schools often have no 'non-contact' time at all. They are expected, however, to devote more and more time to administration: assessment and record- keeping, for example. Teaching assistants could help lift the weight, and free teachers to concentrate on the job for which they feel best qualified.
In a sense, there is nothing so new in these proposals: many good schools have been using outside helpers for some time, most notably in the form of parents. At present, however, they are used in a fairly casual way. They are often given no formal schedule, or description of their role. The radical element in the IPPR proposal is to build such helpers' contribution into the school's whole approach, and formalise the use of teaching help.
Teaching assistants are already well-established in fields such as foreign languages, for example. But, the report suggests, a newly recruited body of assistants in primary schools could become the means of developing foreign languages among younger pupils, just as 'care assistants' could provide extra support for children with learning difficulties.
At present, such classroom helpers are rarely given training. The suggestion is that university students be given the option, in their last year, to opt for a teaching unit, offering them the opportunity to acquire some basic teaching skills. Once out of university they could then offer their skill to schools as teaching assistants. The assumption is that teaching associates would have at least a degree, or equivalent qualification.
Full-time teaching assistants would be on around two-thirds to three-quarters of the teachers' salary, but many would simply be contributing without
As the report says, it might not only be the schools that benefit. Local employers and parents may find that they learn as much from the experience as the pupils. At worst, the idea seems worth a try, with a few not-too- costly pilot projects; at best, it could prove a valuable tool in supplementing teachers' skills.
'Partners in Change: Enhancing the Teaching Profession' will be available from the Institute for Public Policy Research next week, 30-32 Southampton Street, London WC2E 7RA, pounds 4.95.
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