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Assistant Roles and Changing Jobs Boundaries in the Public Services

ssistant Roles and Changing Jobs Boundaries in the Public Services
Stephen Bach,
King’s College, University of London
Ian Kessler,
Templeton College, University of Oxford
The last decade has been a momentous one
for public services arising from the
continuous process of organizational
restructuring. The policy and academic
communities, however, have paid limited
attention to the changing roles and
responsibilities of public service employees.
This is surprising because there is a
longstanding social science tradition that
examines the process by which occupations
become professions and, more recently, the
potential for de-professionalisation.
These debates on the roles and
responsibilities of public servants are
taking on a new saliency, linked to broader
policy issues. For public service managers
the immediate catalyst has been the
shortage of nurses, teachers and social
workers and the necessity to fulfil service
needs by thinking creatively about how
these shortfalls can be addressed. For
public service policy makers at national and
local levels, the stimulus has been the re-
structuring process over the last two
decades designed to develop public
services more sensitive to user needs than
to staff preferences. These developments
have galvanised managers and policy
makers to appraise critically existing roles
and to promote the growth of assistant
roles to augment the work of public
services professionals (Bach, 2002). These
roles have much in common. They have all
been designed to support occupational
groups commonly labelled ‘semi’
professional; they often involve forms of
caring activity on the ‘cusp’ of the labour
market where paid employment meets
unpaid domestic work; and they have all
largely been filled by female employees
(Abbott & Meerabeau, 1998).
This research project seeks to explore the
development of these assistant roles in
three core public service areas: health,
education and social services. In particular,
it focuses on how and why health care
assistant, primary school teaching assistant
and social work assistant roles have
emerged in these areas, the ways in which
these roles have been structured and
regulated, and the consequences of these
roles for a range of key stakeholders.
Despite a growth in importance, analysis of
assistant roles remains limited. Certainly
there have been a number of studies
covering workplace activities and aspects
of employment amongst teaching assistants
(Hancock et al, 2002; McGarvey, 1996) and
healthcare assistants (Grimshaw, 1999).
However, few, if any, attempts have been
made to understand the structure,
operation and consequences of these roles
underpinned by a robust analytical or
theoretical framework. In part, this relative
neglect reflects the tenor of public policy
debate. Teaching assistants, for example,
have been presented very much as a means
to an end, in this case improving the
teacher’s working conditions, rather than
as a group of importance and interest in its
own right. As the Prime Minister has noted
‘schools have taken advantage of their
increased budgets and autonomy to employ
more teaching assistants and administrative
staff, freeing teachers to teach’ (emphasis
added)(25/1/02). Similarly, health care
assistants have been viewed as a means to
supplement nursing resources, following
the reforms of nurse education in the late
1980s. More importantly, these assistants
appear to have been dealt with only
indirectly by various research literatures.
A number of separate literatures can be
distinguished. They have much to
contribute to an understanding of the
development of assistant roles but have
been preoccupied with slightly different
issues and groups. The first literature is
that related to the sociology of occupations.
Its value lies in highlighting the social and
political processes underpinning the
emergence of any occupation (Krause,
1971). However, the strongest research
stream has focused on the professions.
Thus ‘professionalisation’ has come to be
viewed as a labour market strategy adopted
by selected groups to secure status and
associated rewards with considerable
attention given to the search for ‘closure’
as a means of securing these outcomes
(Friedson, 1970; Johnson, 1972; Larson,
1977). An emerging interest in the fragility
of ‘closure’, with professional authority
increasingly being questioned by various
groups, has reawakened interest in the
contested and contingent nature of job
boundaries (Ackroyd, 1996; Ackroyd,
Hughes & Soothill, 1989; Hanlon, 1998).
Indeed, the emergence of assistant roles
might well be viewed by the professions as
a threat to ‘closure’. As an official from the
National Association of School Masters and
Union of Women Teachers recently stated,
‘We’ve got to be careful that teaching
assistants do not become junior teachers.
Their job is important but it’s not teaching.
The Government certainly seems to be
doing its best to blur the demarcation lines’
(Independent, 3/4/02).
This challenge to occupational identity in a
public service context has been taken
forward in a second literature, that related
to New Public Management (NPM). The
NPM literature with its focus on the re-
structuring of the state in the eighties and
nineties (Hood, 1991), has drawn attention
to new occupational groups, in particular
the public service manager, as well as to
another party, the service user or
consumer, as an influence on the character
of service provision. This literature has
examined the impact of these developments
on professionals, but has adopted a
relatively narrow focus concentrating on
the extent to which professionals have been
incorporated into managerial hierarchies
and value systems (e.g. Kitchener, 1999).
Indeed, it has been the increasing tension
between the professional and the
managerial in the context of a state
sponsored managerial ‘revolution’ which
has driven this literature’s interest in
occupational relationships and identities
(Clarke & Newman, 1997).
The NPM management literature suggests
that a reinvigorated cadre of managers
supported and driven by systems of
performance management has challenged
long standing professional roles and values,
but in ways that cannot be equated with
any straightforward shift towards increased
managerialism. This is reflected in
Exworthy & Halford’s (1999) edited text on
the relationship between professionals and
managers in social services, health and
state education. Noting that the character
of this relationship should be seen very
much as an empirical issue, it highlights
important differences in outcome in terms
of a strengthening or weakening of the
respective roles both between and within
the different sub-sectors. There are strong
grounds for suggesting that the growth of
assistant roles will further impact on the
frontier of control. The division between
managerial allocation and control of work
and the scope for professionals to retain
discretion over how they perform their jobs
will be influenced by the expansion of
assistant roles.
While focusing on shifts in certain
occupational relationships in the public
services, the New Public Management
literature in the main has neglected the
impact of structural and managerial
changes on employment roles and
conditions. These changes have been
assumed rather than investigated or
vaguely dealt with in discussion of ‘culture
change’. The third literature, that drawn
from industrial relations, provides a
framework for a structured evaluation of
employment in these roles. Given a
mainstream concern in industrial relations
with the regulation of the employment
relationship, this framework has been based
on the formulation of procedural and
substantive employment rules of an
informal and formal kind by various rule
Attempts to use this regulatory framework
as a means of exploring new roles in the
public services in any systematic way have,
however, been somewhat limited. The
study of industrial relations in the public
services has tended to focus on a highly
institutionalised procedural form of rule
making traditionally based on centralised
collective bargaining with a particular
interest in substantive rules which mainly
relate to pay and other terms and
conditions (Bach & Winchester, 1994;
Corby & White, 1999). This focus has
tended to detract from an interest in the
work relations of particular occupational
groups. Thus a concern with the
determination of pay and working time
across specific bargaining units in the
public services (Farnham & Horton, 1996)
has diverted attention from a broader
consideration of how particular
occupational roles are developed and the
ensuing implications for workload and
occupational demarcations.
This study will seek to explore the ways in
which employment in assistant roles is
regulated. More specifically, it will evaluate
the development of assistant roles by
focusing upon the following sets of
procedural and substantive employment
Eligibility rules
: The rules that regulate
entry into these roles- for example,
recruitment and selection procedures
as well training and educational
Performance rules
: The rules that
regulate the tasks, responsibilities,
attitudes and behaviours structuring
these roles-for instance, expected levels
of performance and systems used to
manage performance.
Reward rules
: The rules that regulate
the returns for fulfilling the tasks and
responsibilities associated with these
roles- for example, established pay and
grading structures as well as careers
management systems.
A number of research questions flow from
this interest in the ways in which
employment in assistant roles is regulated
and from the different literatures
Research Questions
The research will be concerned not only
with a description of the rules that regulate
employment in assistant roles but will seek
to analyse and explain the development of
these rules. The emphasis on management
discretion within employer units has been a
central goal of public service restructuring
and as a result, the research design needs
to combine a focus on the service provided
alongside a recognition of possible
managerial variations in the use of
assistants within each employer
organisation. Three sets of questions that
address these different levels of analysis
will drive the research:
i) To what extent and in what ways do
patterns of employment regulation as
they relate to assistant roles vary
health, education and social
The emergence of assistant roles across
the three sub-sectors provides a powerful
rationale for a study that embraces them
all. However, there are strong grounds for
suggesting (Exworthy & Halford, 1999) that
the development of these roles will vary by
service area. Such differences might be
seen as linked to the different political,
financial and governance regimes to be
found in the different sub-sectors as well as
to variation in the character of their
respective labour markets structures and
occupational hierarchies. For example the
distinct historical evolution and regulatory
regimes associated with teaching, nursing
and social work and the extent to which
assistant roles complement rather than
erode these historical patterns will have an
important influence on the extent to which
assistant roles are becoming embedded in
each sub-sector. Sub-sectoral comparisons
will therefore elucidate the impact of the
service environment for the development of
assistant roles.
ii) Accepting broad potential differences
between sub-sector, to what extent
and in what ways do more detailed
patterns of employment regulation
vary within
service area?
One of the striking characteristics of State
re-structuring suggested by the New Public
Management literature has been the
devolution of operational responsibility and
accompanying resources to quasi-
autonomous employing units albeit within
the context of tightly defined performance
targets and regulatory frameworks.
Certainly, there is some evidence to
suggest that employing organisations
within different public service sub-sectors
do exercise discretion in human resource
terms (Kessler, Coyle Shapiro & Purcell,
2000). Taking account of these
developments and complementing the
service orientation, this project recognises
that managerial discretion at the
organisational level may also impact on the
development of assistant roles, reflecting
specific requirements at the level of the
social services department, school and
NHS trust.
iii) What have been the consequences of
the emergence of assistant roles
regulated in particular ways for
various, interested stakeholders?
Naturally a range of actors have a stake in
the continuing development of assistant
roles. However, for each actor the
consequences can be viewed as assuming
very different forms. The following potential
outcomes are considered:
a) For the assistants themselves, are
these roles extending employment
opportunities or are they providing
only narrowly defined and highly
constrained career horizons?
b) For adjacent (semi) professions, do
assistant roles constitute a threat to
professional identity and status or, in
providing scope to focus on and
deepen key skills, a chance to enhance
c) For users, do such roles represent
greater, less intimating access to
services or the provision of such
services on ‘the cheap’ in a diluted
d) For employers, do assistant roles
provide a short term, expedient
response to recruitment and retention
difficulties or a more strategic
response to calls for new forms of
service provision?
Research Methods and
Our research agenda requires a
methodology that both covers the different
public service sub-sectors and probes the
process of rule making at different levels
within these sub-sectors. As a means of
capturing the requisite breadth and depth,
the research will be conducted in two main
phases. The first phase will be based on
interviews with key national stakeholders.
It will place the evolution of assistant roles
in a policy context, trace the establishment
of national frameworks regulating different
aspects of these roles and refine further the
research focus. Around twenty interviews
are envisaged, a figure derived from the
number of organisations with a stake in or
an influence on the regulation of assistant
roles. A list of the kinds of organisations
with such a stake is provided in Appendix
2. At least one representative will be
interviewed from these organisations. The
documentary material produced by these
organisations as it relates to assistant roles
will also be analysed.
The second phase, constituting the main
part of the research, will take the form of
six case studies, comprising a pair of cases
for each of the three assistant roles. The
case studies will, therefore, include two
NHS trusts, two local education authorities
and two local authority social service
departments. It is acknowledged that there
is some inconsistency in these units of
analysis in that the trust and the local
authority is the employer of health care
assistants and social work assistants, while
the school rather than local education
authority is likely to be the teaching
assistants’ employer. However, given the
small number of teaching assistants likely
to be found in any given school, it is felt
that cases based on the local education
authority will allow for a more wide ranging
and sophisticated analysis of this
occupational group.
The case study methodology, designed to
produce a detailed, in-context picture
based on a bundle of research methods
seeking to capture different ‘voices’ and
complex organisational patterns, is viewed
as best suited to this project for a number
of reasons. First, a range of actors will be
interacting in complex ways to regulate
assistant roles. The research needs to
capture this complexity and the different
perspectives the actors bring to bear.
Second, a concern with the consequences
of such roles for various stakeholders
suggests the need to gather the views of all
these different stakeholders. Third, an
interest in work roles and performance
encourages the use of varied research
techniques including observation. Given the
difficulties employees can have in
articulating what they do, observation is
often a means of confirming and
establishing workplace activity (Barley &
Kunda, 2001). Finally, an interest in the
development of these roles implies the need
to trace their emergence over time. This
means delving back and seeking to build a
picture of how assistant roles have evolved
in the case study organisations.
The selection of cases from health, social
services and education is linked to the first
research question in that it helps us explore
the ways in which service characteristics
might influence the development of
assistant roles. The use of paired case
comparisons is primarily designed to allow
us to consider differences in the use of
assistants within sub-sector linked to
managerial practice. The selection of these
cases, therefore, will be related to criteria
that might be expected to reveal some
difference in such practice or indeed be
indicative of it. More specifically, the
selection of cases will be linked to two
criteria: i) labour market characteristics,
with, for example, choice related to
variation in recruitment and retention
difficulties given that such variation might
influence the use of assistants; ii) instances
of ‘good’ practice with the selection of
‘beacon’ or innovative cases as identified
by Commission for Health Improvement
rating, OFSTED or Social Services
Inspectorate reports directing attention to
novel management practice as it relates to
the use of assistants.
The research work in each case will be
structured along two dimensions. First, it
will seek to gain information from and
about those actors with a stake in assistant
roles. As noted, this will include local policy
makers, managers (line and specialist such
as HR officers) assistants themselves,
associated professionals and service users.
Second, it will attempt to use a number of
techniques to generate such information
including interviews, focus groups and
observation as well as the use of secondary
documentary material. The balance
between these techniques is likely to vary
between cases and in the light of
circumstance. In general, however, the
project aims to undertake around fifty
interviews, five focus groups and one week
of observation per case. Around half the
interviews will be with the assistants. The
remainder will be distributed between other
stakeholders. Two focus groups will be held
with assistants, and one each respectively
for managers, users and other
A brief overview of the potential sources of
information in each case study, along with
a conceptual map, is provided in the
Friedson, E. (1970). The Profession of
Medicine: A Study of the Sociology of
Applied Knowledge. New York: Dodd,
Mead & Co.
Abbott, P., & Meerabeau, L. (1998). The
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London: UCL Press 2
Ackroyd, S. (1996). Organisation contra
organisation: Professions and
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Hancock, R., Swann, W., Marr, A., Turner,
J., & Cable, C. (2002). Classroom assistants
in primary schools: employment and
employment. Report Prepared for a
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Hanlon, G. (1998). Professionalism as
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of Industrial Relations, 40 (2): 319-39.
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London: MacMillan.
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(2000). New forms of employment relations
in the public services: The limits of
strategic choice. Industrial Relations
Journal, 31 (1): 17-34.
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out of pay devolution? The prospect of local
pay bargaining in UK public services.
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(2): 263-82.
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Powell & C.N. Hinings (Eds.),
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Organization: Accounting, Healthcare &
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Appendix A: Target Organisations for Phase 1
Education Health Social Services
Department of
Education and
Department of
Department of
Bodies: Employees
Association of
Head Teachers
Association of
School Masters
National Union of
British Medical
Royal College of
British Association
of Social Workers
Bodies: Employers/
Local Authority
Society of Chief
Personnel Officers
Society of
Education Officers
Association of
Health Care
Human resource
Institute of Health
Care Management
Local Authority
Society of Chief
Personnel Officers
Association of
Social Service
Regulatory Bodies
General Teaching
United Kingdom
Central Council for
Nurses and
General Social
Care Council
Appendix B: Details of Information and Sources
-Personal background
-Opportunities: available &
-Career plans
-Job satisfaction
-Views on asst. roles
-Relationships with assts.
-Use of assts.
-Own time management
-Own pattern of activities
-Views on assts.
-Relationships with assts.
-Use of assts.
-Views on asst. role
-Relationships with assts.
-Interviews/focus groups
-Recruitment procedures
-Job descriptions
-Induction material
-Applicant details
-Interviews/focus groups
-Perf. mgmt/appraisal sys.
-Training course details
-Job descriptions
-Professional/asst. ratios
-Interviews/focus groups
-Pay/grading structures
-Pay levels
-Hours worked
-Non-pay benefits
Health Social Services Education
-Personal background
-Opportunities: available &
-Career plans
-Job satisfaction
-Views on asst. roles
-Relationships with assts.
-Use of assts.
-Own time management
-Own pattern of activities
-Views on assts.
-Relationships with assts.
-Use of assts.
-Views on asst. role
-Relationships with assts.
-Personal background
-Opportunities: available &
-Career plans
-Job satisfaction
-Views on asst. roles
-Relationships with assts.
-Use of assts.
-Own time management
-Own pattern of activities
-Views on assts.
-Relationships with assts.
-Use of assts.
-Views on asst. role
-Relationships with assts.
-Interviews/focus groups
-Recruitment procedures
-Job descriptions
-Induction material
-Applicant details
-Interviews/focus groups
-Perf. mgmt/appraisal sys.
-Training course details
-Job descriptions
-Professional/asst. ratios
-Interviews/focus groups
-Pay/grading structures
-Pay levels
-Hours worked
-Non-pay benefits
-Interviews/focus groups
-Recruitment procedures
-Job descriptions
-Induction material
-Applicant details
-Interviews/focus groups
-Perf. mgmt/appraisal sys.
-Training course details
-Job descriptions
-Professional/asst. ratios
-Interviews/focus groups
-Pay/grading structures
-Pay levels
-Hours worked
-Non-pay benefits
Health Social Services Education
Health Social Services Education
Appendix C: Conceptual Map
Employers – Expediency or strategy?
Assistants – Limited or extended opportunities?
Professions – Weakened or strengthened?
Users – Access or dilution?
between sub sectors
within sub sectors
Social Services
Eligibility Performance Reward
State Employers
Assistants & Representatives
Professionals & Representatives
Employers – Expediency or strategy?
Assistants – Limited or extended opportunities?
Professions – Weakened or strengthened?
Users – Access or dilution?
between sub sectors
within sub sectors
Social Services
between sub sectors
within sub sectors
Social Services
Social Services
Eligibility Performance Reward
Eligibility Performance Reward
State Employers
Assistants & Representatives
Professionals & Representatives State Employers
Assistants & Representatives
Professionals & Representatives
... For the professional, the assistant might bring to the employment relationship a set of distinctive capabilities which help them in dealing with issues. There is evidence (Bach et al., 2005) to suggest that assistants have particular tacit skills which they bring, often from a domestic context and from their proximity to the local community, ensuring that they have a greater empathy with service users than the professional. However, the presence of an assistant might paradoxically increase workloads, if the professional acquires additional responsibility for the assistant. ...
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: Throughout the 1980s, government ministers strongly advocated the decentralization of pay determination in the public services. Despite this exhortation, by the end of the decade rates of pay and salary structures were rarely determined at workplace level. This paper explores the resilience of national pay determination and considers whether it will survive the radical restructuring of public services initiated in the last few years. The analysis focuses mainly on the health and education services, arguing that distinctive organizational, occupational and political characteristics of the services still constrain the devolution of pay bargaining. In the face of tight budgets and the recent introduction of pay restraint, service managers have sought to make paybill savings through unilateral changes in work organization rather than through devolved collective bargaining.
Professions in the United Kingdom have been periodically marginalized and The Management their growth suspended, but they have shown considerable capacity to adapt. The evolution of 'new model' professions at the end of the last century and the beginning of the present one, which occurred without governmental regulation or patronage, was associated with the development of an effective and independent form of occupational organization for professional groups. This organization combines control of the labour market with informal cooperation and control within employing organizations, and is identified as a form of occupational 'double closure'. It is characteristic for occupations organized in this sort of way to become encapsulated groups or quasi organizations within formal organizations. This argument is developed in the body of the paper through a consideration of the contemporary situation of professionals in manufacturing industry and the public services, where new model professions have established themselves firmly in the present century, and where there are some very similar informal structures. The influence of current social and economic change on these forms of professional organization is then discussed, and it is argued that although they are clearly embattled in some of the areas of their traditional strength, because of their developed organizational attributes, professional groups are likely to persist. Contemporary management of professional services is not without difficulty in these circumstances; and, in areas where professions are well-established, re-organization is taking place round encapsulated professional groups rather than by re-constructing them. Despite some superficial similarities, therefore, the management of services is different between traditional professional services and newer commercial ones. Moreover, if the account of professional self-organization developed here is a reliable guide, in the longer term we may expect it to extend to new services, despite current differences in their organization and forms of managerial control.
This paper focuses on the increasing use and changing role of auxiliary classroom support, and formed part of a wider study of the organization and management of resources in a group of primary schools in Northern Ireland. The views of headteachers and teachers were sought on how classroom assistants could be used to facilitate the delivery of a curriculum with a strong practical emphasis, and a case study carried out in one school provided an example of good practice. The extent to which primary schools employed classroom assistants out of their own budgets, or had the benefit of this kind of help from a range of external sources at no extra cost, is described. The paper shows that the classroom assistants were mostly concentrated at the lower end of key stage 1, although the key stage 2 teachers in the study would equally have valued this regular support. The duties of classroom assistants are described, as well as the skills required for their responsibilities towards both pupils and teachers. The results showed that the primary teacher's role as manager and facilitator has increased, and that there is a need for auxiliary support for these functions. Where support has been available, though, it has remained largely the responsibility of the teacher to foster the classroom assistant's essential skills. Some local education authorities and higher education are beginning to take this training seriously, and formal courses are emerging. Recently, the Department of Education for Northern Ireland announced that from the start of the 1995/96 school year every primary school would have a classroom assistant for Primary 1. Considering the present research, which revealed a need for the right calibre of practical help in primary classrooms, it is to be hoped that this support will be extended and applied more flexibly to all primary classes.