Julia Bruce, a teaching assistant at a special needs school in Harlow, looked for years for a course which would extend her professional skills but nothing was what she wanted. Some were too basic; others offered nothing for people working in special schools. Then, along came Anglia Polytechnic University's new foundation degree for teaching assistants, "and it just seemed an ideal combination of everything I was looking for".
By studying one day a week for four years at one of the university's campuses in nearby Chelmsford, she will not only gain skills which will help her in day-to-day school life, but also give her the option of going on to a full honours degree. "And hopefully it's a good qualification in itself; one that will say to people: "Look, I do a good job. And I have a brain."
Another student on the course, Josie Ward, who has worked as a learning support assistant with traveller children in Cambridgeshire for nine years, already knows she wants to use it as a stepping stone to fully qualified teacher status. "I couldn't afford to take a full-time degree course and, as this one is part-time, it suits me perfectly."
The course is one of the new, work-linked higher education qualifications announced by the Government in a £10m package two years ago. Not all the new courses have got off to a flying start, but the ones for classroom assistants have found eager takers. APU's course was only advertised just before Christmas and, by January, nearly 50 students were on it, with a further 60 hoping to start in September. Other colleges report similar responses, showing the so-called "Mum's army'' of classroom helpers is on the march – hungry to hone its skills and boost its contribution.
University College Northampton, which started its foundation degree last September in Corby and Bedford, filled all its 60-plus places easily and may increase numbers next September, while further north, Bishop Grosseteste College, in Lincoln, which runs its degree in partnership with the University of Leicester, also reports an enthusiastic response to its course, which started in September. "Heads have also been very positive," says vice-principal Derek Bell.
This may be because they know from experience that good classroom helpers are like gold dust, and that, given a choice, they would always rather leave a class in the hands of a trusted teaching assistant than a dodgy supply teacher. It may also be because they already know what the universities running these courses are rapidly finding out: that many teaching assistants are just about as far as they can be from the "pig-ignorant peasants" sneered at recently by teacher union boss Nigel de Gruchy.
Most signing up for foundation degrees are women who have had their families (there are a few men) and who have been working as teaching assistants for anything from two to 20 years. And, while most are new to higher education, they often have other specialist qualifications. Julia Bruce, for example, was a bilingual secretary before joining her school. "Many of these people are very able. They just haven't had the opportunity to do a degree before," says Rebecca Bunting, dean of APU's School of Education. "They are majorly motivated."
The courses set up so far mainly address primary education, although courses for secondary school assistants are in the pipeline. They cover how children learn, the national curriculum and literacy and numeracy strategies, and how assistants can give the right kind of learning help.
"Which can mean how to support a child's learning rather than just giving them the right answer," says Chris Curran, APU's director of programmes for teaching assistants. "The thing about classroom assistants is that, no matter how benevolent the classroom teacher is – and that does vary – they are always under scrutiny and there is always pressure on them to get stuff down in the book that the teacher wants to see in the book."
APU's course has been designed specifically so that schools are not obliged to supply mentoring support, which not only avoids making yet more demands on busy teachers but also avoids the "huge variation in standards of these relationships" which Curran has seen in his work with trainee teachers. "And these are mature, life-experienced women, used to coping. We provide the structures, framework and the technical answers, but it would be patronising to offer more." Instead, students keep themselves on track through a system of peer support groups.
Classroom assistants can go on from these courses to join the registered teacher programme and, with two more years of part-time study, become qualified teachers. Last year, the Government announced 12 pilot projects around the country to develop this route into teaching. However, many will probably choose to return straight to their jobs, better equipped to fulfil the plans of Education Secretary Estelle Morris, who foresees teaching assistants making a much greater contribution to the classroom.
But, one thing she may not have taken into account in this vision of the future is something many colleges are already noting: as soon as classroom assistants find their feet in the world of higher education and re-evaluate their worth, they inevitably also start to look afresh at their salaries, which range from about £9,500 to £12,500 for a 32.5-hour week, and say: "Hey, surely I'm worth more than this?".