Teacher professionalism in a new era

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Teacher professionalism in a changing context

Workforce remodelling

An important aspect of New Labour policy in England has been its school workforce remodelling agenda and the 2003 National Agreement on Raising Standards and Tackling Workload. A key element of this concerns the use of teaching assistants. While most sections of the support staff workforce in English schools have grown in recent years, the number of teaching assistants has risen dramatically. Between 1997 and 2005 the number almost trebled – from 35,500 to just under 100,000. By comparison, the number of full time equivalent (FTE) ‘regular’ teachers1 in the maintained sector rose by just 4,000 to reach around 430,000 last year (DfES, 2005a).

The growth in teaching assistant numbers in England has been accompanied by marked changes in the nature of their responsibilities. This has involved a shift in focus from purely ‘care and housekeeping’ towards greater involvement in the actual process of learning – including, for example, assisting with the assessment of pupils’ learning. This expansion of the number and role of teaching assistants is not an entirely new idea in England. The 1967 Plowden Report and 1975 Bullock Report urged that more profitable use be made of welfare assistants and ancillary help (Marland & Rutter, 2001). By the 1990s, concerns about teacher supply and teacher workload again highlighted the potential for making greater use of support staff. It was the literacy and numeracy Strategies, however, that were the main driver for the first real expansion of teaching assistants and a widespread movement into learning support and even teaching-type roles in mainstream classrooms.

While the remodelling agenda has seen administrative roles reallocated from teachers to support staff, it has also seen a ‘reaffirmation’ of the new role of teaching assistants. In particular, in 2004 the government established the Higher Level Teaching Assistant training and assessment programme, whereby teaching assistants can pursue Higher Level Teaching Assistant status. The government has taken the same approach to the training of teaching assistants as it has with teachers – setting out standards that must be evidenced. In this case there are thirty-one such standards to meet, many of which are not dissimilar to those for teachers (see TTA, 2003).

The government has played an active role, then, in blurring the distinction between teachers and teaching assistants. Many of the teacher unions have accepted this, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, as a means of helping teachers to focus on teaching rather than administration or behaviour control. The largest teachers’ union – the National Union of Teachers – however, refused to support the workload agreement. The union presented this in terms of the potential for the dilution of the professionalism of the teacher function and declining standards where staff without a teaching qualification were left in charge of whole classes – which ‘Higher Level’ teaching assistants are indeed permitted to do. By contrast, the government argued that the agreement was part of a process in which different professional and professionalising groups recognise their complementary roles in improving education in the interests of all (Morris, 2001).

I understand that a recent review of teachers’ pay and conditions in Northern Ireland found strong opposition from both management and unions to the introduction and employment of Higher Level Teaching Assistants. This was partly because there is no general shortage of teachers and partly because their use is seen as reducing the standard of teaching provision (DENI, 2004).

Children’s agenda

Linked to workforce remodelling in schools is an even broader ‘Children’s Agenda’. Legislation based on the Every Child Matters Green Paper (DfES, 2003) has sought to ensure multi-agency work in the interests of children and involve children and young people themselves in decision making. To support this policy, Local Authorities are being encouraged to bring together education and social services departments into powerful education and children’s services departments and to establish ‘Children’s Trusts’ to co-ordinate these services with other statutory and voluntary agencies. As part of this development, an ‘extended schools’ programme seeks to establish wider services in all primary and secondary schools – including study support and family learning opportunities and swift referral to a wider range of specialised support services, if not on-site services in childcare, youth justice, health and social care. This is something that has been tried successfully in Scotland and is often seen as vital if the effects of social disadvantage on educational achievement are to be minimised.

In Northern Ireland the government will shortly publish its strategy for children and young people. Its consultation document incorporates many of these themes, emphasising the need for organisations at all levels and in all sectors to work together to support a ‘whole child’ needs-centred model. Draft actions for the Department of Education include exploration of the extent to which schools could be resourced to become multi-agency centres with out-of-hours usage (OFMDFM, 2004). These kinds of developments will obviously bring far-reaching changes to the way in which different welfare services are configured, but also to the way both teaching and support staff work with other professionals.

Parents and business

At the same time, particularly in England we have seen a greater emphasis on the voice of parents and business in relation to what happens in schools. Local Authorities and Ofsted have both sought to give more attention to parents’ interests. Ofsted, for example, will now be able to respond to concerns raised by parents themselves about their children’s schools. Meanwhile, businesses and other stakeholders have been increasingly encouraged to become involved in the education sector by part-funding and running anything from a local initiative to national programmes and individual schools (see Dickson et al, 2003). Specialist schools with sponsors now constitute the majority of secondary schools in England and all secondary schools are now being encouraged to take this path. Similar thinking underlies the Academies programme and controversial proposals for Trust schools (DfES, 2005b). I understand that a small-scale pilot of specialist schools in Northern Ireland, whereby schools must raise private sponsorship and develop sustainable links with business, is scheduled to commence in April.

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