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Teaching Assistants: Your Secret Weapon in Improving Efficacy and Outcomes

effective Teaching Assistant working hard

While feathers flew about new system hierarchies and accountability structures, the education white paper contained at least one thing on which everyone could agree: systemic improvement in standards and outcomes is impossible without high quality teaching and leadership.

School leaders and teachers aren’t just at the heart of Educational Excellence Everywhere, they’re all over it. Across its 128 pages, there are 325 mentions of ‘teacher(s)’ and 323 references to ‘leader(s)’ or ‘leadership’. Curiously, however, nowhere in the white paper will you find a reference to the 362,000 individuals that make up a quarter of the school workforce: teaching assistants.

TAs are no strangers to being sidelined by the policy process. Last October, Schools Week revealed that after a seven-month delay, the Dept. for Education would not be publishing the much-anticipated professional standards for TAs. Even though the standards were non-statutory, the DfE’s cold feet seems to have prompted by not wanting to be seen to impose diktats on schools. Yet school leaders’ decision-making is often much improved when informed by a commonly-agreed, structuring framework, developed on the basis of sound research and common experience. No-one was advocating for a fine-grained recipe; just the necessary ingredients.

Following the DfE’s decision, a number of organisations interested in promoting the work of TAs asked ministers for permission to publish the standards. Permission was granted subject to it being made clear that the DfE was no longer involved in their production.

The informal interest group that took on the job of publishing and promoting the standards includes Unison, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), the National Education Trust, the London Leadership Strategy, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and Maximising TAs – the initiative I lead with my colleague Paula Bosanquet.

The support of the NAHT is especially welcome, as it emphasises two things that the research and development work I’ve been involved with for over ten years has consistently shown: i)
that the drive for whole school improvement should and must include the contribution made by TAs; and ii) this being the case, making the best use of them is necessarily a school leadership issue.

The emphasis on leadership is underscored by the findings from research that show a mixed picture in terms of TAs’ use and impact. Briefly put, while the evidence of using TAs to lead targeted curriculum interventions is heralding the kind of promise rarely seen in educational research, the evidence of the effect of looser everyday classroom support is troubling.

The reporting of the research I’ve been involved (that’s the ‘troubling’ stuff mentioned above) has led to a few myths about the value of TAs, which I spend a lot of my professional life busting. In a nutshell, the causes of effective, and more especially, ineffective uses of TAs are almost always an indication of the quality of decisions made by school leaders and teachers about TAs – not by TAs themselves. Structural, organisational and procedural failings put TAs in reactive positions, which compromises their potential effectiveness and can in turn have negative consequences for pupils’ learning and development.

At Maximising TAs, our view is clear: schools stand to gain much more from rethinking and improving their use of TAs than cutting their workforce – as thin readings of the research might imply. The average annual spend on TAs in primary schools is £186,000, and £231,200 in secondaries. As a school leader managing a finite budget in difficult times, it’s tempting to see the substantial cost savings. But any decision to cut TAs, and not spend the savings elsewhere, is very unlikely to improve efficiency. The evidence strongly suggests that, in many cases, this will adversely impact teachers’ workload and stress, and affect the quality of provision for the most vulnerable learners.

School leaders should ensure they know the evidence and acquaint themselves with the guidance on best practice before they take action. Fifteen months ago, when the TA standards were expected to be published, I co-authored Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants with my UCL Institute of Education colleague Peter Blatchford and Jonathan Sharples from the EEF. The guidance – which synthesises the national and international evidence on TAs and makes seven practical, actionable recommendations for maximising their impact on pupil achievement – was due to be published alongside the standards.

The guidance has since been supplemented with a set of resources to help schools implement the recommendations. Now the TA standards are finally available, we can present school leaders with the rounded package we first envisaged: tools to help reform, rethink, repurpose and reenergise their TA workforce (in other words, to decide what TAs should do), and professional standards to help determine the skills, knowledge and experience required for them to thrive in their role (i.e. what TAs should be).

No jurisdiction in the world has gone as far as England in the use of classroom support staff. If we are to realise the stated aim of Educational Excellence Everywhere and shoot up the international league tables for pupil achievement, the contribution of TAs will be absolutely essential.

View comments (1)
Janet McKinlay
11 Mar 2017 / 11:03

Underestimate the value of Teaching Assistants at your peril. Of course there can be the temptation for teachers to use them as glorified Personal Assistants and clear guidance, training and monitoring in terms of impact is essential. However, the benefits of teachers working collaboratively with a teaching assistant and having the opportunity to work as a 'team' to raise standards and address the needs of each child outweigh the cost.

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