[Mr George Howarth in the Chair] — Teaching Assistants

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:18 am on 18th March 2014.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education) 10:18 am, 18th March 2014

I do indeed recognise that. In fact, I am also ancient enough to remember the pre-decimalisation era. There are certain disadvantages, however, for people whose mother is a dinner lady, particularly if they go to the same primary school: despite my picky eating ways, I was forced by embarrassment into eating my school dinner every day, whether I liked it or not. I want to make that tribute from the start, because it is important to remember that. Later, I will talk a little about support staff pay, which has been mentioned by other hon. Members.

Schools have changed immensely in the past couple of decades, particularly in relation to the provision of teaching assistants. When I taught in a comprehensive school between 1985 and the end of 1994, teaching history and economics and eventually being a head of department, there were no teaching assistants at all. Occasionally a special educational needs assistant might appear with a pupil with particular special needs, but teaching assistants were not otherwise present in schools. They would have been a great benefit, which is why there was a big expansion in the number of teaching assistants under the previous Government. They recognised that it was helpful to have support from teaching assistants available, as that would help pupils and enable teachers to get on with the job of teaching, they being the professionals in pedagogy.

Under Labour, the number of teaching assistants trebled. The number of regular, full-time-equivalent teaching assistants overall increased from 61,000 in 1997 to 194,000 in 2010, with the greatest increase in the primary sector, but there was also a 36% increase in the secondary sector, including academies. There was a large expansion, as well as a degree of debate about the effectiveness of teaching assistants and about what jobs they carried out, because they have a wide range of duties when helping out in schools.

The Government have been sending out mixed messages about teaching assistants, and that has been reflected in the debate. I hope that the Minister will, in her response, set out with more clarity the Government’s vision for the future of teaching assistants in our schools. We have already seen the Secretary of State’s failed attempt to dismantle completely the 2003 workforce agreement. That attempt was rejected by the teachers’ pay body, which did not believe that we should return to the days of teachers being expected to undertake many tasks that were not directly related to their teaching. That was the first mixed message given out by the Secretary of State.

As hon. Friends have pointed out, there have also been leaks to the press about other messages, presumably from the Secretary of State, or perhaps from some of his special advisers on the lunatic fringe—we never know the sources of such press stories for sure. One story, which appeared last year in the Daily Mail in response to the Reform report, has already been referred to:

“The Treasury and Department for Education are considering getting rid of the classroom assistants in an attempt to save some of the £4 billion a year spent on them...Think-tank Reform found that schools could improve value for money by cutting the number of teaching assistants and increasing class sizes.

Thomas Cawston, the think-tank’s research director, said: ‘We cited a swathe of evidence that questioned the value for money of teaching assistants and demonstrated that their impact on educational outcomes for pupils was negligible.’”

I apologise for quoting at length, but I will quote a little more from what was reported:

“We found that while they were supposed to help teachers, they were actually being allowed to take classes themselves. Not being prepared or qualified to do those classes, they were not doing a very good job.

The money spent on teaching assistants would be far better spent on improving the quality of teachers.”

Understandably, that story led to speculation, and to concern and uncertainty in the world of education about the Government’s position on teaching assistants. The Government seem to support the idea that assistants are a waste of money. I do not know whether that message is driven from the Treasury, to put pressure on the Department, or if that is what the Secretary of State for Education and his Ministers believe. I hope that the Minister present will today clear up the matter and give us all—the country, everyone interested in this, and the people working in our schools, including teaching assistants, teachers and head teachers—a clear view, rather than strange mixed messages.

My next example is not of a mixed message, in fairness to Ministers, but of a straightforward two fingers up to teaching assistants and support staff, including dinner ladies and others working in our schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston, who served as a Whip on the Bill concerned, has mentioned this. Within months of coming to power, the Government abolished the School Support Staff Negotiating Body.

Let me explain. That body was not a national pay review body in the way that the teachers’ one is, or other public sector workers’ bodies are. It was not charged with recommending and setting pay and conditions for staff; it was simply there to provide for the whole country a framework or guide, including descriptions of the type of work undertaken in schools by support staff, such as teaching assistants. It acted as a valuable reference point for school leaders, managers, governors, local authorities, academy chains and so on, so that they knew what the rate for the job roughly was, and what the job undertaken by support staff was—what the job descriptions were, and so on. Through the School Support Staff Negotiating Body, a huge amount of work by everyone involved went into putting together those job descriptions and providing the framework that enabled everyone to have a clear sight of the kind of work undertaken by support staff.