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‘Teaching assistants are being exploited when they are asked to undertake responsibilities for which they’re not paid’

‘Teaching assistants are being exploited when they are asked to undertake responsibilities for which they’re not paid’

TAs are being used by struggling schools to fill teaching vacancies, and it benefits no one – pupils, teachers or themselves – writes a leader of a major teaching union

More than 50,000 teachers decided, last year, to leave the classroom and pursue their careers elsewhere. The government should take note: it has succeeded in making teaching so difficult and so exhausting that it has created the highest flight from the profession of all time. Perhaps someone should award ministers a medal for turning the teacher supply challenge into a crisis?

What do teachers do when they pursue pastures new? Surprisingly, the majority remain in education. Fifteen per cent of teachers who leave the profession before retirement become teaching assistants (TAs).

I think this is very revealing. Teachers are voluntarily choosing to relinquish a higher salary, greater job security and an established career structure, but opting to remain in the classroom working with children and young people. The things that brought people into teaching remain pull factors keeping them in education.

As I have written before we cannot afford, as a country, to be so profligate with our teachers – particularly at a time when pupil numbers are rising so sharply.

But teachers who are thinking of becoming classroom assistants should take note: the grass may not be greener. Reports from ATL’s support staff members show that as school budgets decline in real terms, the pressure on support staff to take on more work, and more challenging work, is becoming greater. In too many schools cover supervisors and learning support assistants are being used to cover classes – with timetables which require them to act as supply teachers – but without the pay and recognition they should receive for this.

A young man I met recently at ATL’s support staff conference wants to train to become a teacher and is working in a school as a curriculum support assistant. Since September he has covered, on average, 13 lessons a week. In that time six teachers have left the school and not been replaced. Their timetables are being shared out among the existing teaching staff in the school, and among the support staff. He told me that he is teaching the pupils. He does not have to plan the lesson, but, as he said: “It’s impossible just to sit there and keep the kids silent. You have to introduce the work, try to get them to engage and become interested in what they have to do, and help those who are struggling. The situation is not good. It’s not fair on the pupils who deserve a qualified teacher, and it is putting enormous strain and stress on me – because I don’t feel I have the knowledge and skills to give the pupils what they need.”

Posted: 18th July 2016

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