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Tuesday, September 29, 1998 Published at 18:22 GMT 19:22 UK

Education: Features

Supporting role

Helping out in the literacy hour

The government has announced a big expansion in the number of classroom assistants. Who are they and what do they do? BBC News Online's Gary Eason visited Loudwater Combined School in Buckinghamshire to see how its assistants work.

Nine o'clock on a Tuesday morning and the literacy hour is getting under way in Miss Bailey's Year 1/2 class.

Helping out is Jenny Woodison, 49, who has been a 'support assistant' at the school for about eight years.

[ image: Jenny Woodison's advice to anyone considering the job?
Jenny Woodison's advice to anyone considering the job? "Go for it"
As the class splits into four ability groups, she leads one set in a word game, matching cards with rhyming words.

"I think that the amount of work the teachers do, they need someone there - even if it's for the mundane sort of jobs - they need someone to help out," she says.

The job does involve the mundane - preparing teaching materials, making wall displays and so on. But a large amount is directly involved with the children's work, such as the word games or helping them with handwriting or hearing them read.

Their training has concentrated on helping pupils with special educational needs: labour-intensive work which classroom teachers do not have time for.

Like many assistants Mrs Woodison first got involved on a voluntary basis when her own children - now aged 15 and 13 - were pupils at the school. The then headteacher asked her if she would like to become a support assistant.

She is paid about £6 an hour but does it for the love of the children, she says.

[ image: Pauline Freeman: Also trained in first aid]
Pauline Freeman: Also trained in first aid
Mrs Woodison works 15 hours a week. Ironically in view of the expansion, her hours have had to be shortened because of budget cuts.

Another of the school's four assistants, Pauline Freeman, is there full time. She too began, nearly 12 years ago, helping out as a parent.

"It's lovely when the children actually get what you are trying to tell them," she says.

"We use the assistants a lot to help the children academically," says the class teacher, Sophie Olive. "They're excellent. The more the better."

This is not something the teachers' unions have a problem with.

"Teachers can do with every bit of help they can get," says NASUWT spokesman Graham Terrell. "But it must be from properly qualified and trained people.

"There's no point trying to fill up spaces in the classroom with the young unemployed" - a reference to the controversial experiment in Wales which is using young unemployed people as classroom assistants.

Loudwater's Deputy Headteacher, Peter Barber, says the ideal would be more teachers - but, in the real world, an expansion in the number of assistants is very welcome.

Wider involvement

"We are going ahead with the literacy hour here and are putting all our support from the non-teaching assistants into that," he says.

The school includes its assistants in staff meetings and training days, and intends to involve them in the planning of the literacy and numeracy hours - although Mr Barber can see potential difficulties in getting the right people if the work does become too demanding in terms of the hours involved.

But the value of the existing staff to the school is clear.

"They are superb. I think we are very lucky, but the ones we have got are very experienced and are very supportive."

The best thing about the job, Jenny Woodison says, is the children. And the worst thing?

She laughs.

"The children."

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