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Saturday, 17 November, 2001, 02:16 GMT
Spin on classroom assistants
By BBC education correspondent Mike Baker

In 'spin doctor speak', it is known as a 'flier'. A ministerial speech or announcement is trailed in the Sunday newspapers. Wanting to be ahead of the game, the weekend reporters leap on the parts of the speech tossed to them by the minister's minders.

The 'spin doctors' can then sit back and see whether the policy 'flies' or falls flat.

If it is well received the minister will polish up that section of their speech and follow through on the policy.

If it goes down badly, then the key part of the speech can be buried by other detail.

Classroom assistant with pupils
Teachers rely on assistants to help in many ways
The newspaper reports can be dismissed as having taken the anticipated remarks 'out of context'.

Any similarity between this tactic and the education secretary's speech about the modernising of the teaching profession this week is, I'm sure, purely accidental.

Last weekend, a well-briefed Sunday newspaper announced that classroom assistants would be allowed to take charge of classes in order to free teachers to get on with lesson planning and other non-teaching duties.

The announcement proved to be incendiary. Before Estelle Morris had even begun to deliver the speech, the teacher unions were expressing outright opposition to the idea.

Classroom assistants were not too happy either. The policy had been launched, but it looked to be plummeting fast.

Cautious

By the time the speech had been delivered the education secretary and her advisers were being far more cautious.

No, they were not suggesting that classroom assistants would be left in charge of a class.

Yes, they might supervise pupils for a short time, after the teacher had set work.

But, of course, the teacher would not be far away. They might be sitting just outside the classroom getting on with their lesson planning.

The speech itself was vague and cautious on this controversial issue.

Head teachers, teachers and parents agree that a classroom assistant is an immense asset in the classroom

Schools needed to 'build on the creative use of teaching assistants' with schools using a mix of staff 'fulfilling complementary roles - qualified teachers alongside trained classroom assistants, learning mentors and technicians'.

No-one objects to extending the use of classroom assistants.

Head teachers, teachers and parents agree that a classroom assistant is an immense asset in the classroom.

They can hear individual children read or even supervise a small group of pupils within the classroom.

But they are not classroom teachers. Some of them may get a taste for a career in teaching and go on to train to be a qualified teacher. In these times of recruitment difficulties, that is welcome.

But did I detect a government attempt to find a 'quick fix' solution to alleviate teacher shortages?

One can well understand why the government is getting desperate.

The official number of teacher vacancies in England is just under 5,000.

But that underestimates the problem because it does not include posts filled on short-term contracts or posts filled by teachers who are not specialists in the subject they have been asked to teach.

But the problem is bigger still. As Estelle Morris was delivering her speech about modernising the profession, she also issued government predictions about the shortfall of teaching staff.

By 2006, she predicted, the real shortfall of teachers would rise to 40,000. No wonder ministers are clutching at straws.

child writing
Classroom assistants help with the literacy programme
But the problem could be even worse. The unions and the government are in a long-term, grumbling dispute over teachers' workload.

A draft report by the consultants Pricewaterhouse Cooper(PwC) recommended this week that teachers should be given guaranteed time off during the school day to prepare lessons (teachers refer to this as 'non-contact time').

Now it doesn't take a genius to work out that if teachers are to have more 'non-contact time' there will have to be more teachers to cover the lessons they are missing in order to do their preparation and marking.

The consultants estimate an extra 3,000 teachers would have to be recruited just to provide around 10 minutes non-contact time a week for every teacher in the country.

The only other option to recruiting more teachers would be to reduce lesson times for pupils, increase class sizes or make greater use of non-teaching staff, such as classroom assistants.

Coincidence?

So, was it coincidence that the consultants' report and the new predictions on the shortfall of teachers came at the same time as the government floated the notion of classroom assistants supervising classes?

It is a shame, really, that things worked out this way.

Estelle Morris was right to raise wider questions about how teachers use their time.

Technology does have the potential to change a pattern of teaching that is largely unchanged from the days before computers and video-links.

But to suggest classroom assistants should take over the role of teachers did not seem a good way to start such a debate.

As 'fliers' go, it wasn't quite in the Wright brothers class.

See also:

12 Nov 01 | Education
12 Nov 01 | Education
28 Aug 01 | Education
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