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Monday, 1 April, 2002, 23:45 GMT 00:45 UK
Warning over 'Mums' Army' in schools
assistant with pupils
The union wants the role of assistants to be defined

Teachers are warning ministers not to use a "Mums' Army" of classroom helpers to overcome the staff shortage and the problem of excessive workload in England's schools.

A report for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers says this would be a "disastrous scenario".

What concerns the union most is how the government might seek to define the work that can be done only by a qualified teacher - and what being "in sole charge" of a class might mean.

The report came amid signs that the government might be preparing to offer teachers five hours a week of lesson preparation time, to address the workload issue.

Covering for teachers

The report, being presented to the union's annual conference in Scarborough, was written by Eamonn O'Kane, who takes over this week from Nigel de Gruchy as the union's general secretary.

It is a response to the enthusiasm of the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, for expanding the role of classroom helpers - "teaching assistants" being the preferred official term for a variety of roles.

Among other things she envisages that assistants might supervise classes, doing work set by a teacher, and cover for teacher absence.

Labour's manifesto commitment to having an extra 20,000 assistants in England by 2006 was in part a response to the expectation that, by then, the country would be short of 40,000 teachers over and above the 10,000 the government promised to recruit.

Mr de Gruchy has made the point that although 20,000 sounds like a lot, it amounts to fewer than one assistant per school.

The unions see last year's settlement in Scotland as a useful model.

Lunch duty

The McCrone Report, on which the move to a shorter working week north of the border was based, set out the sort of tasks teachers should not be doing.

These included supervising pupils outside of lessons, collecting dinner money, administering drugs, inputting data, maintaining computers and recording educational broadcasts.

But Mr O'Kane said the greatest difficulty would arise in reallocating responsibilities to teaching assistants when there was a direct impact on actual teaching.

In medicine and the law, nurses and "paralegals" now did much of the work that was previously the domain of doctors and solicitors.

Could a similar process happen in teaching, he asked.

"Or would the result be an inevitable dilution of the professional standards in teaching, perhaps initially in primary schools, with an expansion of the 'Mums' Army', an approach espoused briefly by the former Conservative government?"

Mr O'Kane later stressed that his use of the phrase "Mums' Army" - which the conference deleted from his report - had not been meant to reflect the realities of today.

He welcomed the way teaching assistants might take on much of the work that had been done by teachers.

But he said there were important discussions to be had about where to draw the dividing line between the two roles.

Other members of the union have made the point already that teachers' workloads can be increased rather than reduced if they are having to supervise what assistants are doing - especially if the assistants are not adequately trained.

Clearer role

The School Standards Minister, Stephen Timms, is expected to try to reassure delegates on the issue of training when he speaks to them on Tuesday morning.

He is likely to point out legislation currently proposed in the latest Education Bill would define the activities to be carried out by teachers, who typically have spent four years at university to become qualified.

But the union's general secretary, Nigel de Gruchy, said he would want to draw the line at their being in sole charge of a classroom.

What was not often mentioned, he said, was that the bill would also allow the government to decide what was meant by being "in sole charge" - it might not necessarily mean the teacher had to be in the same room.

The BBC's Sue Littlemore
"Many classroom assistants fear they may become the cheap option"
See also:

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