We need to be assured on the quality of training for classroom assistants

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The Independent Online

The Government's plans for modernising the teaching profession have much to commend themselves. However, they do need more work before they can be seen as a coherent package to give the profession the world-class status ministers so earnestly desire for it.

The Government's plans for modernising the teaching profession have much to commend themselves. However, they do need more work before they can be seen as a coherent package to give the profession the world-class status ministers so earnestly desire for it.

For a start, the massive expansion of classroom assistants – an extra 50,000 are to be appointed in the lifetime of this Parliament – has to be welcomed. Extra pairs of hands to do administrative tasks such as invigilating exams and collecting dinner money and an increase in the number of school bursars to take some of the financial strain away from headteachers would be all to the good. The hiring of these extra staff, too, will help create the 10 per cent of time during the school day that ministers are guaranteeing that teachers will be able to spend out of the classroom and on marking and preparation.

It is the third strand of classroom assistant – the new advanced classroom assistant (ACA) – that needs more thought. According to the Government's proposals, they will be able to take over lessons and cover for absent teaching staff (or, in the rather more formal language of the blueprint published yesterday, they will be able to follow "the pedagogical route" to career progression).

Ministers stress that this will only be done under the supervision of a qualified teacher. However, if you read the fine print, you realise that that teacher does not necessarily have to be in the classroom. It will be up to the headteacher's discretion as to the amount of time the advanced classroom assistant is allowed to spend on his or her own in the classroom.

There is a school of thought that a classroom assistant who knows the pupils well and has been following the work that they do in class will be better prepared to take over the class if a teacher is away on a course or sick than a supply teacher who comes in cold to the school. That will only be the case if the ACA is adequately trained in classroom control techniques, and we have yet to see the exact nature of the new specialist vocational qualification that will allow an ordinary classroom assistant to become an ACA.

There is also another point here: as one classroom assistant training to be a teacher, and who has already been given the opportunity to take classes on her own, said to us yesterday: "As much as I love my job, if I didn't know I was going to be a teacher there is no way I would stay in it – because of the pay." She is paid £5.92p an hour for a 25-hour week, and she does not get paid for the school holidays. Asked about a new pay structure for this new breed of classroom assistants who are the kernel of the Government's reforms, Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, came up with the stock reply that this was a matter for the local education authorities.

This is not good enough. In order to be able to assess whether these radical plans will work, we need to be assured of the quality of the training on offer to the new ACAs. Once we are assured of that, we need also to be assured that an adequate reward structure is in place for those who wish to go down that route. If we are not assured on these two scores, then it will be hard to argue against the contention of the National Union of Teachers – the union most forthright in its opposition to the plans yesterday – that the proposals amount to staffing our schools "on the cheap".

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