Unions protest at new role for classroom assistants

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The Independent Online

A Government plan to allow thousands of classroom assistants to take lessons has prompted claims that it will compromise teaching standards.

A Government plan to allow thousands of classroom assistants to take lessons has prompted claims that it will compromise teaching standards.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, warned there was a danger the proposals "would be a reversal of what we've campaigned for and had in place for the best part of 30 years".

It would replace an all-graduate profession with the "monitorial system" which existed before the 1970s.

He added that the proposals "wouldn't be a mile away from the mum's army" scheme put forward under John Major's government a decade ago, which sought to put more unqualified helpers in the classroom. That was opposed by teachers' leaders as a "dumbing down" of the profession.

"How can parents be persuaded that the Government is raising standards if it plans to use unqualified people as teachers?" he said.

Union sources said they had been told the Government's long-term aim was for schools to employ equal numbers of classroom assistants and teachers – a move which would eventually mean taking on an extra 100,000 on top of the 50,000 that will be recruited during this parliament. As part of the deal, teachers will be guaranteed time away from the classroom for marking and preparation by the Government – possibly for as much as 10 per cent of their working day.

In addition, from as early as April, they will be spared from a wide range of administrative tasks, including invigilating exams and collecting money for school dinners and trips.

However, it is the extension of the classroom assistants' role that will cause most controversy. The Government plans to create a new post of "advanced classroom assistant" – obtained through studying for a special vocational qualification.

Subjects such as drama, sport and foreign languages have been floated as ideal for being taught by people who do not have a teaching qualification. The move could lead to a dramatic increase in the number of foreign language assistants employed in state schools.

A draft of the proposals circulated to union leaders and local authority employers by David Miliband, the minister for School Standards, says the new advanced classroom assistants would "lead some classes in their own right" under supervision by a qualified teacher, "cover for absent Qualified Teacher Status teachers" at the discretion of the headteacher, and "keep order in assemblies, other situations around the school premises requiring good pupil discipline, field trips, etc, sometimes alongside QTS teachers".

Under the blueprint, ministers will agree an enhanced career structure for classroom assistants. Unions representing them are angry that most are only paid during school term times and laid off during the holidays.

Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said teachers had "to bite the bullet". If teachers were to be given time off during the day for marking and preparation, someone would have to cover for them, he added.

Under the proposals, ministers will also repeat the Labour election pledge of taking on an extra 10,000 teachers during the lifetime of this parliament.

The guaranteed marking and preparation time – possibly of up to 10 per cent of their working time – is also seen as a breakthrough, particularly for primary school teachers who at present have hardly any time away from the classroom. A clause in teachers' contracts which commits them to "open-ended" working hours will be removed. However, there will be no specified limit on hours – a move that will disappoint the unions, who had argued for a 35-hour week.

The Government said last night that its reforms would allow teachers to spend more time with their pupils as the classroom assistants would relieve them of administrative burdens.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, accused ministers of being "far too conservative" in their estimates for recruiting more teachers.

"They appear to have given up the ghost on recruiting significant numbers of extra teachers," he said.