Carrying the can?

In many schools, workforce remodelling will provide teaching assistants (TAs) with a host of exciting opportunities. However from 1 September, compulsory implementation of the third phase of the National Agreement Programme, which was originally signed by government and all major teaching unions (except the NUT) in 2003, will also present TAs with a range of new challenges.

Under the programme, every teacher will be entitled to spend 10% of their time each week on planning, preparing and assessment (PPA). This is likely to mean, unless head teachers employ additional staff or deploy existing ones, that TAs will have to take on more responsibility. So, whilst remodelling has provided the catalyst for the development of many innovative approaches to the redeployment of the school workforce, it has also led to a higher profile for TAs who for the first time have a solid career pathway to follow.

Ambitious TAs not interested in moving into teaching, can now train as higher level teaching assistants (HLTAs). They can do this by completing a 50-day training course, or by building up a record of excellent practice in different aspects of the HLTA role. This role will undoubtedly vary widely, especially as head teachers have a lot of flexibility in how the school workforce is deployed. However, whether they work across the curriculum, in a specific department, or help to develop support materials, HLTAs should always work under the overall direction of a teacher. 

Changes in the way schools operate are also likely to provide a range of opportunities for TAs to specialise. An interest or skills in areas such as ICT, music, sport or performing arts will be very useful – particularly in primary schools, which often lack expertise in these areas. Indeed, increases in both the scale and scope of what TAs will now be able to get involved in, will make the role a more attractive proposition for a wider variety of people.

While educational traditionalists will always complain about any programme that erodes the time-honoured status and role of class or subject teacher, those concerned with protecting the interests of support staff have very real concerns about pay and conditions.

Public sector union Unison is worried that TAs and HLTAs will be left carrying the can while teachers are absent from the classroom. “Higher level teaching assistants have a range of skills and experience that can prove valuable in enabling them to effectively supervise classes or to support learning whilst a teacher delivers a lesson to larger groups,” says a spokesperson.

“Under no circumstances however, should a HLTA be asked to actually teach a lesson or cover a class long term, and we also expect recognition to be given to those members of staff covering PPA time by paying them at the correct level,” he adds.

Unison’s concerns appear to be justified as cases have emerged of people who have trained to be higher level teaching assistants, but who are only being paid at a higher level for the hours they are actually covering lessons and at a lower rate for the remainder of the time. Others who are not HLTAs are being forced into taking on higher level duties – again, without the proper remuneration.

“Most teaching assistants I have spoken to feel extremely positive about the new opportunities and challenges and greater level of professionalism the workload agreement is bringing to their working lives,” says Francisco de Luca a Unison Officer in Hampshire. “Sadly, I have also come across several instances where pressure is being applied by school management to force a TA to comply with unacceptable working conditions and derisory payment offers – with the threat of redundancy hanging over them should they fail to do so.”

Over 4,000 HLTAs are already trained up and a further 10,000 have registered to take the qualification. But can schools, with a welter of financial pressures and in many cases, serious budgetary problems, provide jobs with improved pay for all of them?

The National Association of Head Teachers  certainly doesn’t think so and pulled out of the workload agreement last March for this reason. Without a national framework covering the pay and conditions of teaching assistants, there is not only pressure on schools to cover PPA on the cheap; there is also a loophole, which at the discretion of a crafty or desperate head teacher, can be exploited. At present each local authority sets its own wage levels for teaching assistants, who on average earn about £13,500 per year, with HLTAs hopefully being paid somewhere between £18-£20,000.

Unison has proposed its own national pay scales which would see TAs paid up to £15,015 a year and HLTAs between £23,265 and £26,157. The education secretary Ruth Kelly has shown some interest, but the reality is that a national scale would cost a lot more money so is unlikely to be seriously considered in the near future.

What will it mean for children?
Traditionally, teaching assistants have often supported the less able members of a class. Although schools will have a statutory duty to continue the agreed level of support for children and young people with statements of special educational need, many in the education field will not see redeploying the sort of support that less able pupils receive as a bad thing.

Good teaching practice should mean that less able children can access classroom activities independently. If pupils need constant adult support then either the activities are inappropriate or the teaching strategies being employed are ineffective.

It is hoped that giving teachers 10% more planning, preparation and assessment time will mean more time to analyse pupils’ needs more closely. Teachers should be able to get to grips with a variety of learning styles and develop a range of learning and assessment activities that is open to, and benefits, all pupils.

Workforce remodelling – key facts
1. Since 2003-4, teachers have not been expected to perform a list of 25 administrative and clerical tasks.
2. Since 2004-5 the number of hours that teachers have to cover for absent colleagues has been limited to 38 per year.
3. From September 2005 teachers will be given a minimum of 10% non contact time for planning, preparation and assessment. Head teachers will benefit too as they will get 10% dedicated headship time to allow them to focus on leading teaching and learning

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