My advice to anyone working in schools or colleges is to steer well clear of Sunday newspapers and news broadcasts.
Inevitably there is at least one article guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of committed education professionals who are trying their hardest to improve our education service even further.
Unfortunately, I failed to follow my own advice recently and found my head shaking at a Sunday Times front page article that speculated that the Treasury was attempting to persuade the Department for Education to make 230,000 teaching assistants redundant.
Whatever the provenance of this speculation, the idea that a government that has preached autonomy for schools, and that has absolutely no power to tell schools whom they can legally employ, could contemplate such a decision is plainly outrageous.
Nevertheless, they can of course reduce budgets, forcing unpalatable decisions about which frontline services schools might cut. As business managers update their budgets, I am receiving regular feedback about the eye-watering reductions schools are faced with over the next three years.
Whatever has been said about protecting budgets, the reality is that the flat cash protection to the overall schools’ budget over the last two years has already meant a real-terms reduction in per pupil allocations.
Reductions in post-16 funding and changes to local formulae, without any attempt to tackle the inequitable distribution of national funds to local authorities, translate into six-figure cuts in many cases. In meeting this degree of challenge teaching assistants would be an easy target – much easier, say than, losing the odd maths teacher or cutting a GCSE subject from the curriculum.
The case against teaching assistants has of course drawn on evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation and Professor Peter Blatchford of the Institute of Education (see http://bit.ly/10NW8Un) which claims that, in itself, employing teaching assistants has little impact on raising standards. As is so often the case however, that evidence has been drawn on selectively.
Yes, poorly deployed teaching assistants will do nothing to raise standards. But properly trained and well-used ones will. Teachers need to plan their lessons carefully in order to use teaching assistants effectively – and teaching assistants need access to high-quality training.
Leadership teams need to monitor the impact of this valuable resource carefully. Where this kind of co-ordinated approach is in place there is absolutely no doubt that teaching assistants can have a powerful impact on the quality of learning.
But we all know this, and we also all know that this kite has not been flown in the interests of our education service. It is of course about saving money at a time when the government, seemingly with increasing desperation, is looking for billions of pounds of further cuts.
The government preaches autonomy and talks of a high status teaching profession. The same government constantly tells us that it has no wish to take professional decisions on behalf of schools. Autonomous school leaders who are trusted by the government are left to use their experience, skills and expertise to make leadership and management decisions in the best interests of their students.
We know that everyone has a part to play in times of economic constraint. Regardless of the rhetoric of ring-fenced school budgets, we know that many schools are already doing more with less.
However it will not benefit teaching professionals, students or parents to go back to a bygone era that some policy-makers might remember where a single school secretary did everything from first aid to rattling out the head’s letters on her typewriter.
We have come a long way since then; let’s not let a misguided attempt by the Treasury to save money derail that progress.
Brian Lightman is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Visit www.ascl.org.uk