Deborah Orr: Teachers should accept some help

'I felt ashamed. Until I did it myself, I didn't think about how much effort is lavished on these all-important details'
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The Independent Online

The rise of the classroom assistant has indeed been dizzying under the Blair Government. In 1997 there were 83,000 willing helpers in our schools, and at the time of the last election 127,000, an increase of 50 per cent. Now the Government intends to recruit another 20,000 and plans to offer them "a wider role".

This wider role, including "supervising classes doing work set by teachers, invigilating tests and taking on administrative duties such as photocopying and collecting dinner money", has been greeted with varying degrees of horror by the unions. Above all, they have seized upon the suggestion of Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, that assistants may even be able to cover for qualified teachers who are off sick or on courses. According to Nigel de Gruchy, of the NASUWT: "It means more childminding and less education."

He has a point. At first glance the suggestion does seem cynical, a quick fix for the difficult problem of burgeoning teacher shortages, now acknowledged by Ms Morris herself. The teaching unions are not wrong to be wary of the Secretary of State's suggestion. But the danger is that this headline-grabber could easily damage perceptions of what, up until now, has been a positive initiative. (Which is nothing new. It's a classic new Labour mistake to hit upon something that works within limits and then to try to stretch it too far.)

All of the indicators suggest that the increased emphasis on assistance in the classroom has worked well, easing the burden on teachers and increasing the attention given to children. Furthermore, the assistants themselves like it, finding job satisfaction unusual in such low-paid work, and increasingly taking the decision to train as teachers as their own confidence grows.

A scheme in Easterhouse, a Glasgow housing estate with a long and troubled history, had such success in recruiting locally for teaching assistants that it is now running a similar scheme for nursing assistants. The role of teaching assistant is one that has the power to attract people who would otherwise remain intimidated by the memory of the institutions of their youth. The fact that a mechanism that allows teaching assistants to train on the job to qualify as teachers is already available further improves a healthy situation.

But despite all this, there is no doubt that the trend towards supplementing teaching posts with assistants' jobs is still viewed with suspicion. Again and again, when the work done by teaching assistants is discussed, the word "photocopying" is bandied about, as if there's really not a great deal that teachers can be assisted with.

That is certainly not true at my son's school, where even the assistants need assistance, and a rota of parent helpers is much relied on by teachers and assistants alike. True, it's a primary school, where the work that teaching assistants can do is more obvious and where a growing reliance on assistants has been more widely accepted as "a good thing".

But a morning that I spent recently helping out at my child's nursery class left me convinced that the anciliary work around the school could easily encompass all the help the school could get.

My first duty was stringing 30 spiders made by the children on to black wool with a darning needle, in preparation for suspending them from the ceiling of the class. Next I stuck photographs into work books compiled by the pupils who were preparing to move up to reception class. Later their teacher would talk to these children about the photographs, helping them withtheir memory skills and encouraging them to start forming narratives from their lives.

Mid-morning demanded some light supervision – manning an activity table, helping the children sort items by shape and colour and reading to them if they wished it – and giving one little girl a cuddle when she was spooked by the Hallowe'en masks decorating the classroom.

The rest of the morning was spent with some fiendishly complicated mounting. Pictures made by the children were stuck on to both sides of coloured paper; then their names, written clearly on tabs of white paper, were stapled on underneath, also back to back. Quite tricky. Finally, they were hung across the class washing line-style, which is why they have to look pretty from both directions.

I really felt rather ashamed as I set about this labour-intensive task. It's not that I never appreciated the splendour with which the children's work is displayed in their school. But until I did it myself, I didn't quite understand, or really think about, just how much time and effort is lavished on these all-important details, details that really lift a school.

One role that teaching assistants could certainly be encouraged to look upon as largely their responsibility is attending to the way the school's achievements are displayed within the building. And there are plenty of others, too, as successful classroom assistants and their teachers will happily testify. In this context, the obsession with "photocopying" looks most mean-spirited.

It is from within this benign context that Ms Morris's incendiary remarks have to be judged. At a fully staffed, well funded and efficiently functioning school there may be no harm and quite a lot of good in leaving experienced assistants in charge of classes on rare occasions. But at an understaffed, underfunded and underperforming school, the possibility of such a policy being horribly abused, to the detriment of assistants and pupils, is strong if not more than likely.

Recent research confirms this, showing huge inconsistencies between schools as to the use classroom assistants are put to and the career development they can expect. There must be much more consolidation of the role of classroom assistants before they can be lined up as any kind of substitute, however limited, for those they are assisting

It is clearly the more vulnerable assistants in the more desperate schools that the unions are thinking about and that Ms Morris should be thinking about too. Education initiatives that would work in an ideal world are not the ones that should be grandstanded in keynote speeches. The world of state education in this country is simply not stable enough for practices that are so open to abuse to be discussed lightly.

At times the teaching unions can appear overly antagonistic towards the Government, while the Government usually seems antagonistic to the unions in return. Frankly, the situation is sometimes simply confusing. Often, as in this case, the unions are right to have some misgivings. And of course they are rightly going to be against the creation of low-paid jobs instead of higher-paid ones on principle. But their protests are sometimes so strident that babies appear to be at risk as well as bathwater.

The result is always entrenchment. Ms Morris has now declared that she will "fight and defeat opposition to reform". I wish instead that she would vow to ascertain which reforms are definitely positive and which are open to abuse, and advance only the former. Or would that seem too wimpy, too appeasing, in this time of war?