Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 44 - 59)




  44. Can I welcome Jean Gemmell, the General Secretary of the Professional Association of Teachers, and Philip Parkin who is a Council Member of the Professional Association of Teachers. I apologise for the time over-run. We are always far too optimistic and push too many sessions in. It is the Chairman's fault because the flow of questions is difficult to stop. Jean, can I welcome you to our deliberations. We are now going to try to change all the questions.
  (Ms Gemmell) We would certainly change some of the answers.

  45. Can I start, first of all, by welcoming you and wishing you a happy New Year. You have been hearing the deliberation this morning. What marks out your union's response to the sort of drift of questions that have been asked and the answers that came back? What is different about your organisation? Are you not, anyway, very soon going to be swallowed up?
  (Ms Gemmell) Absolutely not, is the answer to the last part of your question. I wrote while one of my colleagues was talking that the reports or our demise have been vastly exaggerated. We often read in the TES that we are going to vanish soon. I do not actually know that that is their perception, I think that is the perception that is fed to them by optimistic colleagues in other unions, because I suspect we are a thorn in their flesh, and we would be a thorn in their flesh because we actually do value teaching as a profession and continue to exhort young persons to enter that profession. We do actually represent the different attitude. You will know that it is our cardinal rule that industrial action has no part in any consideration of anyone who belongs to our association. We were established with that cardinal rule as our prime function and it has not changed, but in recent years we have extended our membership to include PANN, which is the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses, which includes all people in child care and early years provision, and more recently still professionals allied to teaching because we have a perception as a union that the "whole team" working within education is the most important thing and that it is only by the whole team working co-operatively that the pressures of accountability and innovation that have rested upon us are able to be coped with. The other thing I would point out is that I am only three years out of being a head of a fairly large and, I am pleased to say, successful comprehensive school; my colleague, Philip, is currently the Deputy Head of a junior school and there are no professional officers working in our headquarters in Derby who are longer out of teaching than me. So we actually do represent the workforce much nearer to the chalkface. The thing I would say that has encouraged me most recently is that I was privileged to attend the New Head teachers' Conference just before Christmas at which Michael Barber spoke. If what he said in these four things is true then I think we are in a more positive stance. He suggested that during the 1970s education could be described within schools and colleges as "uninformed professional judgment". In other words, those at the top more or less were doing their own thing; they were exercising autonomy based on their own past practice or skill or hunch. That was taken over in the 1980s by "uninformed prescription." In other words, we were all told what to do but we were told what to do by somebody else who was operating on myth or hunch. The 1990s were "informed prescription". There is the biggest database about what is going on in schools and what teachers are doing and what children are doing now than there has ever been, and the 1990s' constant innovations and constant pressures were based on that. Hopefully, the 2000s will be based on "informed professional judgment", ie, that database is there, we are data-rich, we do have the information we need to operate more effectively but that the sea-change is towards allowing those of us that are in the profession more autonomy in using that information that is available. If that is true, that is where we come from as an association and what we would urge our members to be supportive of. The whole debate about classroom assistants is, of course, coloured by our perception that the whole team is the only way it will work. I have to say a meeting of minds occurred when I moved from being a head to being an officer with the union because I had that conviction in the school which I managed and spent many years trying to put that into practice, and I moved into an association where that thinking was also permeating through the association. I did not instill it, I arrived believing it in an association that was also believing it.

  Chairman: Excellent. I want to get as much as we can out of this session. Can I ask colleagues for brief questions and relatively concise answers.

Ms Munn

  46. You will have heard earlier in the discussion the questions I was asking about dealing with problems of indiscipline. What is your view about that?
  (Ms Gemmell) In recent years there has been more money in schools than there was when I was last there. It is the availability of funds, I think, that opens some of the gates to the possibilities. When you were talking about, for instance, exclusion earlier with one of my union colleagues the suggestion appeared to be that children who were permanently excluded were going to be permanently excluded from the system, not from the school. It is true that exclusion from one school and re-entry into another school, if that re-entry is properly supported, properly phased-in and the child is properly accepted, can actually offer a new start for a child where they do not carry with them the baggage of behaviour that they have created in one establishment. That possibility was not mentioned earlier this morning and that does happen. There is, of course, the possibility also for alternative provision within the school but that can only exist if there is appropriate funding and appropriate staffing levels and appropriate support. One of the things that I think is very telling is that some children do respond to one-to-one teaching and do respond to a flexibility of timetable and curriculum that within the structure of the school day and the school timetable one cannot cope with. If I can actually quote a special needs teacher that I know dearly, I am married to him, he came home one day from dealing with an individual child and he said "the boy could not settle at all today because of things going on his family so we dug a pond". I cannot, no teacher can when they have got a class in front of them, decide that one child cannot settle so we will dig a pond. It is that sort of ability to deal with the child's needs at the time that unless there is flexibility that only funding can generate we cannot contend with. I have to say the issue over race and Afro-Caribbean boys is one on which I was not happy with the answer that my previous colleague gave because I do think there is a significant problem and I do think it may very well be race related. I think it may be to do with issues that we have not related to the statistics, but are issues on which there may be statistics. For instance, I do not know the figures but I think it is correct that the likelihood of Afro-Caribbean boys coming from families where there is not an adult male role model is vastly higher than other community groups and I think those two things may be closely related.

  47. I was not suggesting that children were permanently excluded.
  (Ms Gemmell) No, it was just in the conversation.

  48. My concern was more about to get to the point, even though it may be useful for a child to move on elsewhere or whatever, to have "this child has been permanently excluded" is a label that goes with a child and sometimes unfairly hampers and labels that child. Is that you are suggesting, that there is now the opportunity with the additional resources that are coming in to do that more preventative and early intervention work and to recognise that there should be other ways of dealing with these situations?
  (Ms Gemmell) I hope that would be the case but can my colleague come in here.
  (Mr Parkin) There are occasions when the relationship between a pupil and the school breaks down to the point where the child and the school both need a new beginning and reclaiming that pupil within that school is not possible. Although permanent exclusion sounds something dreadful we ought to view it as an opportunity for a new beginning and a new situation.

  49. My concern is that a child, and I have had lots of experience of this, who has been permanently excluded has that label, whereas if what we are talking about is finding alternative provision, which is an agreement, there is no need to go down the road of permanent exclusion and the child to get to that.
  (Ms Gemmell) One of the problems that has existed for many years is that it has often been the case that the only way alternative provision was available was by the edict of the sort of working party group that is called when a child has reached the point of permanent exclusion. Funding has not made it a possibility before that as a preventative measure rather than a punitive measure. I think there should be alternative systems available where moving to that alternative system for that child is not deemed to be pejorative. In terms of, for instance, vocational courses post-14, the fact that there is more flexibility for those ought to help some pupils.

Mr Simmonds

  50. You have partially answered the question I wanted to ask. Are there any improvements to the existing structures that are in place that you feel could be improved upon when, say, a pupil is not permanently excluded? I suspect there are pupils who currently do not benefit from a permanent exclusion and are not picked up properly by the existing structures that are in place?
  (Ms Gemmell) Yes, and sometimes schools are their own worst enemies because they hold on to pupils, especially young pupils, in the existing scheme of things when in fact they should be looking at alternative provision or they should be looking at behavioural management programmes for the children and they should be spending the money on those children differently at an early age in order that permanent exclusion does not become the answer ultimately. We, as an Association, would have a policy of inclusivity but not where that policy, as was in recent years, was made that thou shalt not exclude more than so many pupils a term which bears no relationship to whether or not you actually have that many problems a term. As long as there is realism that there are points at which there is change or points at which the school cannot cope is accepted our general stance would be inclusivity with appropriate procedures and funding to make that possible.
  (Mr Parkin) The routes to early intervention through other agencies, such as educational psychologists, who then give access to pupil referral units and things like that, are very difficult because of the shortage of those people, because there are few educational psychologists around and they have got very large caseloads. To get that early intervention at the moment is very difficult.

  51. Is that a function of funding, do you think, or a function of something else?
  (Mr Parkin) I could not speak on behalf of educational psychologists but there do not seem to be many of them going into training at the moment for whatever reason.

  52. Your opinion.
  (Ms Gemmell) It is not a function of funding within the schools, it is a function of funding within local authorities and where local authorities have put their money. As I said just now, the opportunity to convene the right people to come up with the right answer for a child who displays great difficulties has only in the past been possible when permanent exclusion was on the cards. To actually pull together that sort of body of expertise in a therapeutic way was just, and I am only talking about up to three years ago, a non-possibility.

Valerie Davey

  53. Your inclusive policy in terms of the Association's membership means that you have both the classroom assistants and the teachers?
  (Ms Gemmell) Yes.

  54. As a result of that have you been able to more clearly define the roles and nature of those professional groups?
  (Ms Gemmell) When you were asking earlier this morning of someone whether or not there were specific tasks that only teachers could do and classroom assistants could not, I think with regard to a specific task the answer is no, there is no possibility where you could say, like you might with a surgeon and a nurse, a surgeon can do this and a nurse can do that. I think with regard to the job description that does need to be clearly resolved at the point of appointment. The job description will vary almost as much as the number of assistants who come into the system. When you were talking earlier about how could four support staff significantly help a school, they might not significantly help a school if you were thinking the only way in which they could be used would be to appoint a classroom assistant to a teacher for that class. That would not be a very good use. But, if you tie that together with the fact that teachers do do a lot of fairly banal administrative things, marking things, checking things, looking at registers, sending letters home to parents, all of that sort of thing does not have to be done by the teacher and it can be done by support staff. If schools get four additional support staff you do not have to define in advance what the nature of that support staff will be. I think the schools ought to define how that allocation of staffing can be best used within their school. That also brings me on to the topic of ICT that you were talking about. ICT in schools, at the moment, is not being used creatively. It is being used within the classroom and the children are being taught to use it as a communication tool and a retrieval tool but it is not actually being used in a way which means that teachers have immediate instant access to the sort of reports that they might need to help them and the sort of data that they might need to help them. They cannot simply go to their own computers and dial up the statistics that they need on a child who they are teaching this September who they were not teaching for the last two years.

  55. Coming back to your membership though, is the advice to them to clarify their job description before they are employed?
  (Ms Gemmell) Yes. At the moment, because there is not such clarity, one of the things that we have done quite a lot of with our members is they have sent us contracts for us to look at and consider and give them advice upon and then we have sent them back to them with the advice before they have actually signed on the dotted line.

  56. Following up my earlier discussion, has the Association any evaluation of the contribution which assistants are making to the actual rising of standards for those young people in the classroom?
  (Ms Gemmell) No, we have not. The only research that I know has been done about that is only very small scale. You know there were research bursaries offered by the Government and last year I was one of the trained evaluators for that and there were a couple of individual pieces of research being done about whether or not classroom support in a school was actually providing improvement on standards for the pupils. The way in which I would see that it might very well be indirectly effective is when it actually allows greater teacher access to the class and greater continuity when children move from one year to the next and the teacher changes in terms of the modus operandi.

  57. Eventually, as an Association employing both these members of staff you must have some intrinsic understanding from an educational value of the merits of those employed?
  (Ms Gemmell) The only piece of research we have done so far, bearing in mind that this branch has only been in existence for two years, is on the use of classroom assistants and the amount of time that they provide in classes and the sort of tasks that they do.

  Valerie Davey: Thank you.


  58. Do you agree that there should be the possibility of potential progression? When we were doing our Early Years Inquiry we found evidence of high quality people working as teaching assistants who very early hit a ceiling of progression and of income and one did think that without taking them out of the classroom altogether there should be an avenue by which they could build on their qualifications and perhaps get into the teaching profession because there were obviously very gifted people working in those roles.
  (Ms Gemmell) Two years ago we published a paper inhouse which was the career ladder for classroom assistants as we saw it. Can Philip come in here?
  (Mr Parkin) In North East Lincolnshire as part of our teacher recruitment strategy there is a tie-in with Bishop Grosseteste College at Lincoln and a course has been started for classroom assistants to train to become teachers. The first cohort has just started and I believe there are 20 to 30 in that cohort who are doing a pre-degree course and will then move on to a degree course to train as teachers.

Jeff Ennis

  59. Changing the subject to an issue we have not covered before, there is no doubt that over the last ten years the role of LEAs has changed quite radically and some would say diminished quite significantly. Do you see the current balance between individual schools and LEAs as being about right now or does it need to change further?
  (Ms Gemmell) It is interesting that within the case workload that we deal with that we do log the sort of issues that arise and there is no evidence to suggest that schools or teachers wish to dispense with LEAs. We have not picked that up at all. Sometimes we get issues between schools, individual teachers and their LEAs when they are in dispute about something, but we do not have a perception coming from our membership that they wish the demise of LEAs.
  (Mr Parkin) I do have a concern, and I suppose it is a personal concern in a sense, about the devolution of money to schools and the increasing amount of devolution of money to schools—it is 85 per cent this year and it is going to be 90 per cent next year—so the LEAs are being left with less and less money to perform the essential functions. There is a lot of money that is moving out from LEAs and moving back into them through SLAs—Service Level Agreements—so there is a bureaucracy just to move money around between LEAs and schools. As somebody who works for a small unitary authority, a very good small unitary authority, I must say that unitary authority, which is in an isolated part of the country, is not able to provide all of the in-service training that is required, the specialism in the advisers that it employs, because it is such a small authority. Because we are so isolated we do not have easy access to other providers of the training that we require. If our local education authority perhaps was retaining a higher proportion of the funding it might be able to provide those services that we need. I would not like the Government to look at all LEAs en masse and think they are all the same.

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