Further Education's Forgotten Army

Bob Parsons, SET member and member of SET’s Practitioner Advisory Group (PAG), explains why he feels learning support assistants need more recognition in the world of teaching, along with continued opportunities to enhance their skills and qualifications.

Bob ParsonsWhether they are called teaching assistants, classroom assistants, learning support assistants or learning support practitioners, there is a veritable army of people who actively help learning to happen. These are the people who are preparing and adapting resources for visually impaired students, signing lectures for learners who are deaf, patiently helping autistic students to stay focused, and calming disruptive elements.

These are the people who bring a measure of continuity to students who have a special learning need. They do this because often they are working with the student on a regular basis and sometimes across a range of course work with different lecturers. Often, they are a mentor to the student, frequently an open-minded listener, or perhaps a carer. Many are highly skilled, have gained or are working towards a qualification in learning support, and some hope to move on to lecturing.  However, the role of learning support remains undervalued in many further education(FE) centres, can be underfunded and the practitioners so often seem overlooked.

Raising the game for learning support 

Having worked in FE for many years, as a lecturer, head of department and a learning support practitioner, I’ve seen the advantages of learning support first-hand – advantages for the lecturer as well as for the student facing additional challenges to learning.  And whilst providing learning support, I have come to understand the frustrations of a practitioner who may feel they have much more to give than they are acknowledged for.

It is time to raise the game for learning support, to encourage learning support staff to gain qualifications, share and promote good practice, and ensure they are recognised for the special skills they bring to the learning environment. Learning support is certainly an honourable profession and it needs to be recognised as such. Learning support staff must be given opportunities to further their professional development, perhaps to specialise in specific areas of need, in the same way as other professionals in education are continuing to enhance our professional skills.  And, of course, being acknowledged and rewarded for enhancing those skills would also be helpful.

Continuing to enhance skills 

For learning support practitioners there are level 2 and level 3 qualifications available and progression should always be encouraged, yet not all support practitioners seem to have the opportunity to undertake this valuable learning path. This could be because of cost or time restraints, or maybe they feel they are not regarded as important members of the teaching and learning team. Learning support is a career in its own right; a worthy and important career, and one that deserves greater recognition.

I believe that practitioners should consider professional membership and could become affiliates of SET, giving access to a wealth of research information, possible mentoring for career development, and networking opportunities to encourage sharing good practice within and beyond the confines of the immediate workplace. I want to see the expertise of learning support totally recognised, adequately rewarded and with opportunity and encouragement to establish careers built on the empathy and understanding that is the backbone of this occupation. But first, practitioners must accept that they are professionals, seek recognition and grasp every opportunity to continue enhancing their own supportive skills – if this is you, I want to say that you are doing a great job and really making a difference for the students you support.

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