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A Fairly Depressing State of Affairs…And Why We Don’t Have More Male Teaching Assistants by Anita Wooltorton

A few days ago, I was responsible for dragging a dark cloud of depression over the head of one of the nicest, most affable, trusting ‘gentle-men’ I know; a retired Head teacher, whom I sometimes meet up with at conferences.

As we sat there waiting for the conference to begin, we got talking about economics, and the importance to the current generation of ‘the bank of mum and dad’, and he was rather surprised when I made the claim that it was a pity that this wouldn’t be open to any future generations for the vast majority of people. He asked me why not, and I explained my thesis to him, by the end of which, as he was saying uncharacteristically “My God, how depressing”, I did make the offer that, as we were a couple of stories up, maybe we should open the window and both jump together.

My idea to him went something like this; ‘the bank of mum and dad’ is only viable when ‘mum and dad’ have the opportunity to get some collateral behind them, which they can pass on to their kids; ‘mum and dad’ have, in the past, traditionally built up collateral by buying a house that they could afford, normally on marriage, and seeing that house steadily rise in value over the years; as the mortgage was not too high, they found that as the years passed, they had more disposable income that they could put away. They may have been to college or university, or may not, but they did not start off their working life saddled with a hideous amount of debt hanging over their heads. ‘Mum and dad’ were masters of their own destiny, deciding what to do for their own kids’ wellbeing when the kids came along, whether to work full-part-or home-time, because the mortgage was still ticking along at a reasonable level, on a property that was not taking up the vast majority of their income. They were in a position to, in the main, help their kids out should the need arise, but ‘mum and dad’ didn’t expect that they would have to, because their kids, in their turn, would get their own affordable place to live, and ‘mum and dad’ could look forward to a comfortable retirement, safe in the knowledge that their kids were okay.

But, as we all know, those days are gone; ‘mum and dad’ not only help their kids through college and university, they also see their kids come out at the end with a colossal debt before they even do a day’s work. Property prices have ballooned to the point where few of their kids can afford a deposit; if they earn enough to start saving for the deposit, they earn enough to start paying back their student loan, and who can do both? ‘The bank of mum and dad’ might step in, thereby robbing ‘mum and dad’ of their planned comfortable retirement, which may, incidentally, push them to release equity in their house, thereby robbing their children of any residual nest-egg which may have been coming their way when ‘the bank of mum and dad’ finally closes.

So now their kids owe ‘the bank of mum and dad’, the government body that oversees their student loans, and the excruciating payments they have to make just to keep a roof over their heads. If they decide to have kids, they have no choice about returning to work; they have to, to service all of their debts…plus they then have to pay for childcare. What chance do they have to save, in order to become ‘the bank of mum and dad’ for their own kids?

Okay, I know some of you are screaming that the scenario I have painted is straight out of a 1970s middle-class sit-com, with Richard Briars playing the erstwhile dad, and Felicity Kendal the slightly perky but understanding mum, and that many of you did not have ‘a bank of mum and dad’ to call upon, but can I take you back to 1983, when a much younger and slimmer newly-married me bought my first house? Both of us were ‘council house kids’; we knew ‘the bank of mum and dad’ might be good for paying for the wedding flowers, or buying us some crockery, but “don’t push it”. The building society waived the need for a deposit, and we bought a very nice if slightly old-fashioned 3-bed terrace for £20,000…. and we managed……but when we moved 4 years later, the selling price had more than doubled, to £42,000, as had the property we were buying, and we climbed aboard the treadmill, working longer and longer hours, as we convinced ourselves that we were making progress. I firmly believe that this was the tipping-point for ‘the bank of mum and dad’ for many families over the country, and what we are witnessing now is this bank ceasing to exist for more and more families, as professions which were once stable, and solid, and safe, fall into the pit now signified by the dehumanising and merciless term ‘the working poor’.

Yes, yes, yes, but what has all this got to do with the lack of male teaching assistants?… Quite a lot, really…..

The explosion in the employment of teaching assistants came into being from about the time I was first married, when ‘the bank of mum and dad’ was there for quite a sizeable amount of the young population, and many women still had the choice of how to order their working lives to suit their families; we may like to think that feminism was changing our lives radically, turning us all overnight into bra-burning, ball-breaking workaholics, ready to grab the career ladder and scale it like a Himalayan Sherpa on speed, but feminism was more like the steady drip of a leaking tap, which the male world of work chose, in the main, to ignore, to grudgingly put up with or become annoyed about, as the mood took them, sometimes with a snort of derision, sometimes a leer. It was still acceptable for mothers returning to work after having children to consider part-time work, as a top-up to the main (male) wage earner’s pay… “pin-money” to help out with a few luxuries and treats and the smaller bills.

This is where the working practices governing Teaching Assistants were set in super-fast quick-setting cement, and made into concrete boots which have slowed down the development of this profession ever since: a reasonable hourly rate attractive enough to the more intelligent, but not overly ambitious, working woman, for thirty hours a week, thirty-nine weeks of the year; there was no point in us being in school if the kids we were employed to follow were on holiday, was there?……and it suited us, in droves!

It continues to suit many of us, to this day; we convince ourselves that the extra holidays are ‘one of the perks of the job’, that we need those breaks to ‘get over’ the hectic times when we are working, because we are continually on the back foot during term-time, trying to ascertain what we have missed during training and planning sessions we are not paid to attend. We proudly guard our hourly rate of pay, choosing to ignore the nine weeks of the year for which we, in effect, receive no pay at all; I wonder if the job would be quite so popular if the wages were not stretched out into equal monthly payments, and we were only paid when we were in school; something tells me the long summer holidays would not be quite so enticing if we didn’t receive a pay packet at all in August, but that is what is happening, in effect, and we put up with it, because the majority of us are female, and have been conditioned to do so: To accept, to ‘not make a fuss’, to just get on with it.

There are two words which ensure that male teaching assistants are viewed in the same way as unicorns and dancing chickens, and those words are ‘pro rata’. Whether we like it or not, men are still brainwashed from childhood to ‘do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’, to expect to work long hours and to be the main breadwinner, whatever their circumstances, and the thought of ‘not earning’ for nine weeks of the year would take them out of their comfort zone. Yes, we are seeing more men willing to consider becoming a teaching assistant, but only as a stepping-stone in a long career in education; a dip into the murky waters of school-life to see ‘if teaching might be right for them’…..many do not plan to stay, they are here and there, now and then.

And why should we expect them to stay? How can people conditioned from birth to earn a ‘decent wage’, to ‘keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table’ think seriously about becoming a teaching assistant on thirty hours a week, thirty-nine weeks a year? God knows the full-time salary is not a fortune, but those two little words ‘pro rata’ effectively bar vast swathes of the population from even contemplating a career in school support work.

What correlation there is now between earnings and house prices mocks and laughs in the face of the average worker; what I felt confident to aspire to in the early 80s is as remote a dream as winning the lottery for many younger people today, with average house prices ten times greater than the average salary, according to the Daily Telegraph. Are we really surprised that 93% of Teaching Assistants are female, given the hours, the pay, and increasingly, the lack of job security?

In a survey recently taken at a secondary school, out of twenty Teaching Assistants, four were coming up for retirement, three were using it as work experience before taking up teacher training, whilst only one professed to be happy with her rate of pay; the other twelve were either struggling to pay their bills and/or reliant on either family or working tax credits, and concerned that they would no longer be able to carry on doing a job they loved if or when those credits ceased. What kind of a society would allow an army of workers who have become vital to the wellbeing and stability of our education system and the future generations of workers to be so badly paid that they cannot carry out their profession without handouts and second jobs? The hourly rate is a smoke screen which fogs the issue of poor pay and unfair contracts.

Make no mistake, this is a job which has never ensured economic independence for those employed in it; I have known TAs who have had to make the choice not between eating and heating, but between eating and paying the rent, and paying the rent won, as eating lost out…heating wasn’t even a possibility. If you’re a young man, you might contemplate being a Teaching Assistant whilst you are still welcome in the family home, but get a place of your own, or settle and have a family? Don’t make me laugh! Young men soon realise they have to go into something far more lucrative if they want any quality of life whatsoever, but in schools populated by students who have precious few positive male role models in their lives, the benefits of attracting someone who can be looked up to as an older brother figure far outweigh the cost implications; I remember working with one male TA a few years ago who walked around the school like a latter-day Pied Piper, his pack of followers hanging on every word of advice and banter.

Now I am not insisting that all TA positions should become full-time, but surely it is not beyond the wit of senior management and governing bodies in schools and academies to see that it would be in everyone’s interests if we were given the opportunity to work longer hours should we wish to do so. Think of what we could achieve if we were welcomed into school faculties to plan the school year, along with our full-time salaried colleagues, or maybe, just maybe, those nine weeks of the year we are not paid for now could be spent studying and researching the many disabilities we come into contact with on a daily basis.

Maybe then we might see more men willing to make a commitment to being a TA as a long term career prospect, and achieve the gender balance we so desperately need.





The View from the Chalkface by Anita Wooltorton

A few weeks ago, Joy Judge asked me to write something for TA Focus, and I quickly agreed. My first question was “What do you want me to write about?”

“Ooo, anything you like, really… about being a T.A. or a union rep., something along those lines”.

Right! No problemo! No sooner said than done! A large slice of the proverbial Mr Kipling’s coming right up! And I started to think…to plan…to ponder…

…Nothing…nada…niente; my brain slowly turned into the set of a 70’s Spaghetti Western, with nothing moving but a lone tumbleweed rolling down the deserted dirt street of a town devoid of ideas.

Only now, as I face the first day back at the chalkface, after a blissful few weeks which flitted by all to fitfully, do I feel that I can tackle the subject of what it means to be a TA: I needed that distance because, when you actually consider the statement “I am a Teaching Assistant”, nobody, until fairly recently, has had the vaguest damned idea about just what I was claiming!

Let me explain. A taxi driver drives a taxi, a window fitter fits windows, a teacher teaches, but just who or what does a teaching assistant assist; are we there to assist the teacher or the teaching, or, as has been the case in the vast majority of positions which fall under the general heading of TA, is neither a better answer?

Most people who came into this profession have found themselves supporting the learning of individual students, sometimes out of the classroom but mostly in class, with most of these students having been encumbered with a statement of special educational needs. The burgeoning growth of TA numbers is pretty consistent with the scramble by educational specialists and psychologists to have their papers on various ‘-isms’ and ‘-xias’ and the need for inclusion recognised by the establishment, and the closure of nasty, expensive special schools which kept these students out of the mainstream : what was an innovation in the 1970’s is now a job which employs over 300,000 people in the UK, and has become the accepted norm in just about every school in the country.

However, in the charge towards inclusion wherever possible, whether it was the right thing for the individual student or not, normally quite sane, measured, methodical people in education failed to ask themselves the very questions they expected their teaching staff to ask of their students each and every lesson: What are we aiming to achieve by placing TAs within schools? Who is the best person for this job? When should they be employed? Why are they necessary? Where should they work? How will we measure their achievements?

The failure to ask these very basic questions grew as the TA employment numbers ballooned. What we see, as teaching assistants became part of the education framework, are assumptions made in high places that whilst we were deemed necessary, to ‘deal with’ statemented and other problematic students on a day-to-day basis, little thought was given to the how, what, where, when & why aspects of our employment…presumably, those educational specialists missed that part of the equation, and with the unquestioning acceptance of generations (in professional career terms) of education ministers and officials, local authority personnel, headteachers, teachers, etc. the cheap, thoughtless, unprofessional misuse of teaching assistants became the status quo.

Hard words? Let me take you back to my first job as a Learning Support Assistant, when my then SENCo informed me that the gentleman in charge of education for my local county council viewed teaching assistants as “a bunch of middle-aged women who sit at the back of the class with the ‘numpties’ and try to keep them quiet”.

His words were harsh, totally unprofessional, and politically incorrect, but, you know what? He had a point, because the study, ‘Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants’ by Peter Blatchford et al, (when someone actually did get around to starting to research what we do), found that ‘middle-aged women’ was what most of us were, and sitting at the back of the class with the most vulnerable students was what most of us were doing . Because none of the ‘movers and shakers’ in education had asked those important questions, teaching assistants found themselves, over the years, doing anything and everything, from photocopying and general admin for teachers, to actively teaching whole classes on virtual slave-labour wages for headteachers who enthusiastically interpreted ‘cover supervision’ to mean anything that would get them out of a hole, cheaply. But by far the largest group were those of us trailing after statemented students from class to class, in an endless battle to ensure that they ‘kept up with the rest’.

Some of us found our way into schools by volunteering to help out with our own kids, and subsequently found that it suited, hours- and holiday- wise, and the money on offer came in handy; ‘pin-money’, if you like. As the years went by, this idea of women, locally based, of ‘a reasonable standard of education’ (whatever that means!), working hours which suited their commitments (if not their bank balance), became entrenched in education circles, especially as teachers moved further and further away from the schools they taught in, and moved jobs more frequently to keep pace with increasingly accelerated career paths: We, the support staff, became the stabilising factor, the friendly face of the status quo in schools…we weren’t going anywhere…

And we colluded in this contrived educational sleepwalking, because we are nice people; we wanted to help, to work in education with the vulnerable and less able, to feel a part of something that mattered, and we wouldn’t rock the boat, even if we wondered how watching an hour-long film about a kid breaking up a classroom could, in any way, shape or form, be called sufficient training on ‘behaviour problems and how to deal with them’, or how we could work in a Maths department effectively when nobody seemed bothered that we didn’t know how the new Maths being taught worked! We’re nice people, and those higher up must know what they were doing, right?

Okay, this scenario may not be the same for every TA reading this, but I’m willing to bet that I’ve struck a few chords with more than a few of you, and some of you will still be doing the same old dance.

However, our past doesn’t have to be our future, and it is up to us to push for the changes so badly needed in the implementation and career development of TAs. Whilst there are chinks of light appearing as the great and good slowly absorb what Blatchford et al have concluded in their offerings on the use and implementation of TAs, it is a slow, uphill battle to achieve the proper training, status, recognition and remuneration we deserve.

For every school that is waking up, smelling the coffee, and realising what a positive resource we could be, given the correct funding and encouragement, there are countless other dinosaurs, still lumbering around, waiting for everything else to evolve around them. For example, how can a secondary school attract the right people to work with the most vulnerable and needy students when the headteacher still refuses to advertise TA jobs properly, claiming it is an unjustified expense when ‘word of mouth’ will do? It’s like the old vaudeville joke about the bloke applying for a handyman’s job who couldn’t do anything in that line, but who claimed he qualified as ‘handy’ because he just lived around the corner! The trouble is, when it is your child who comes into daily contact with this person, the joke loses what little humour it had.

We, all 300,000 of us, need to get our act together, and drag the reluctant  dinosaurs into this century. Try something for me, will you? Ask about training for your job, and if you want to specialise, see what courses on ‘-isms’ and ‘-xias’ etc. are available in your area, because these courses are for you, and the students you work with deserve the best, not the cheapest, option. If you attend an interview for a school support job, make a point of asking what the school can do for you, what are the career prospects, and if they, like the academy sponsor who came to one of my previous schools with glorious plans for the teaching staff, but who stared at me like I’d just hit him in the face with a frozen halibut when I asked him his plans for TA career enhancement, my advice would be to ‘run like a bunny in the opposite direction’ because “…Erm…well…we really do value what teaching assistants do…erm…” just ain’t good enough anymore!

Ask for specifics; do they want a Teaching Assistant to assist teachers in a certain department as a specialism working with all (and I mean, all) abilities of student, or do they want Learning Support, trained to work with students with specific problems, or do they want a Learning Mentor, guiding all abilities throughout their school life? The possibilities are endless, what we need is appropriate training, a level of respect to reflect that status, and the proper pay levels that go along with it.

Personally, I will breathe a sigh of relief when I see our profession attracting as many male applicants as women,  not simply being used as a stepping stone into teaching, but as a career choice in its own right. Only then will I forget “middle-aged women sitting with the ‘numpties’”.



Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants : How Research Challenges Practice and Policy. Blatchford, P. Russell, A. and Webster, R. Routledge (London and NewYork). 2012