Education & Family

Schools 'break law' on teaching assistants, NUT claims

Generic image of a classroom
Image caption Some teachers are comfortable leaving support staff in charge at times

Schools could be breaking the law by asking support staff to teach lessons when qualified teachers are absent, the National Union of Teachers has claimed.

Since September, teachers in England and Wales have only been expected to cover for colleagues on rare occasions.

But some schools are using classroom assistants to fill in, rather than more costly supply teachers, the union says.

Ministers say that if support staff deliver occasional lessons, they should be under a teacher's overall direction.

Assistants are allowed to supervise classes if they have the right level of qualifications.

But the NUT says they should not actively teach and, if they do so routinely, then schools could be breaking the law.

"What the regulations say is you can only do specified work, which is teaching, if you're under the supervision of a qualified teacher. What you can't do is take over on your own, plan lessons, run classes etc," said John Bangs, head of education at the NUT.

'Cheaper option'

He said the employment of supply teachers - qualified teachers employed to cover absent staff - had "gone through the floor" because "they [were] being replaced by cheaper cover supervisors and support staff".

Headteachers faced a "real temptation to employ cheaper, unqualified staff" in the current climate, but evidence showed putting support staff in inappropriate roles led to a drop in standards, he said.

Mick Brookes, who leads the head teachers' union NAHT, said their policy was to make sure the "appropriate person" was in front of the classroom.

"Mostly that's a teacher, but there are circumstances where somebody else would be perfectly fit and competent to be in front of a group of people, for instance a sports teacher, someone teaching music or a languages specialist," he said.

He said there were cases where teaching assistants could manage a class well.

Some teachers felt confident their assistants could supervise the class because they knew the children and subject work, whereas they would not know the qualities of any supply teacher they might be given, he said.

"My fear is that teaching assistants... will be first in line [for job cuts] and that will mean - as most of them provide support for children with special educational needs - a deterioration of that support."

Christina McAnea, head of education at Unison, said she was "very concerned" some teaching assistants might be being stretched.

"Most of our members are actually being paid incredibly low rates of pay, most of them haven't got sufficient qualifications.

"Part of the workforce agreement says that to do specified work, to actually be actively teaching, should be someone who is HLTA - higher level teaching assistant level - only about 25% of the people we surveyed actually had that qualification," she said.

Margaret Morrissey, from the campaign group Parents Outloud, said teaching assistants were "probably the best thing to have happened to schools in the last decade" but there was reason to be "cautious".

"The occasional emergency teaching or class supervision by a teaching assistant is going to harm no children.

"But they don't have a teaching degree... they are not there to teach, they are there to assist.

"So governors have got to be very clear they ensure there is money and provision for a supply teacher to come in," she said.

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