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Saturday, 12 January, 2002, 00:24 GMT
Futuristic schools but Victorian staffing
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By BBC education correspondent Mike Baker

Like something out of Star Trek, the classroom of the future glides at you, a vision of space and light with rows of quietly blinking computers topped by plasma screens.

Never before have ministers made so many speeches about the key role of support staff

Blackboards are replaced by whiteboards, classrooms by "self-directed study" areas, and the school bell by silent electronic message boards.

Teachers lounge back, like Captain Kirk on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, free to dictate their "captain's log" while highly efficient classroom assistants glide past monitoring the students.

That, at least, seemed to be the vision conjured up by the government in its 3D, computer-generated video launched to coincide with this week's announcement of a 100m scheme to provide free laptop computers for 100,000 teachers.

But if the buildings and the equipment look wonderfully futuristic and hi-tech, will the staffing arrangements match them?

Use of assistants

The government has already acknowledged that schools are heading for a 40,000 shortfall of teachers by 2006 unless recruitment patterns change.

At the same time, the government is trying to find ways of easing teachers' workload without creating the need for yet more recruits to take up the slack.

Which could be why the government's vision of the classroom of the future places so much emphasis on teaching or classroom assistants. Never before have ministers made so many speeches about the key role of support staff.

The language has been cautious, though, as ministers know they will run into a storm if they suggest that classroom assistants actually take over the role of teachers. But their thinking is clear.

As the consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers suggested in their final report to government on teachers' workloads, they want "more flexible use of non-teaching staff" including using them to help "supervise lessons under the direction of the class teacher".

National standards

This would be a major change. At present classroom assistants tend to supervise individual pupils, or maybe small groups, but not whole classes.

Shouldn't their status be put onto a proper, nationally-recognised basis?

Yet these key people, who could find themselves supervising classes, have no national pay scale and there are no national qualification or training requirements for the job.

Few doubt that they fill an important, and under-appreciated, role. But if they are to take on an extended role in the school of the future, shouldn't their status be put onto a proper, nationally-recognised basis?

There are now well over 70,000 teaching or classroom assistants. Numbers have grown as the government has seen them as a key (and one is tempted to add, cheap) way of reducing pressures on over-worked teachers.

They are a distinct group of school staff, operating quite differently from the volunteer classroom "helpers", or from other paid staff such as technicians or nursery nurses.

Low pay

Yet even within this group there is muddle over titles: Is it Classroom Assistant, Learning Support Assistant or Teaching Assistant? One recent survey found there were 21 different job titles.

These are working arrangements that are more 19th than 21st Century

According to Unison, the union which represents 50,000 classroom assistants, their average pay is only about 8,000 a year.

Unlike teachers and nursery nurses, most do not receive any pay outside term times. Many of them therefore used to sign on for benefits during school holidays, but changes in the law mean they can no longer even do that.

Around half are not on permanent contracts and a similar proportion receive no holiday pay.

There are no specific qualifications required to be a teaching assistant, although about 20% have A-levels and 5% have a degree.

Time for change

So is the government really building its futuristic vision on the basis of staff who earn little more than the minimum legal wage, are not paid all year round, and whose qualifications, training and working role is decided on a local, ad hoc basis?

These are working arrangements that are more 19th than 21st Century.

This is not intended as a criticism of those who work as classroom assistants. Far from it. It is time they received proper recognition, training and a career structure.

First there needs to be a definition of their role. In many schools they do much more than hear children read, support pupils with special needs or provide administrative support. But their employment pattern varies from school to school and education authority to education authority.

Perhaps the best way to put them onto a professional basis would be to include them in the remit of the School Teachers' Review Body, which advises ministers on pay and conditions.

Way forward

A structured training and promotion scheme could allow a clear progression from classroom assistants - who are there primarily to assist teachers with practical tasks - up to those, suitably trained, who could play a major part in the teaching process, possibly even supervising whole classes.

So far, ministers' response to this has been to express sympathy with the low pay of classroom assistants while saying there is nothing they can do as pay and conditions must be negotiated with the individual employers, either education authorities or individual schools.

It is a rare example of the government being reluctant to take centralising powers over education.

But if the classroom of the future is to be truly modern it cannot be built on the foundations of temporary, part-time workers earning as little as 5 an hour.

Mike Baker and BBC News Online's education team welcome your comments at although cannot always answer individual e-mails.

See also:

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12 Nov 01 | Education
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