Every day, a dedicated army of further education professionals in colleges all over the country supports thousands of teachers to train and grow the workforce of the future. These unsung co-workers of education’s “middle child” bring with them the benefit of rich life skills and experience, and the promise of more accessible education for learners who have the greatest need. Yet their story is seldom ever told. Who are these mysterious heroes? They are the humble FE classroom support assistants.
There is a variety of reasons why the efforts of FE support assistants may appear hidden. Although the contribution of their counterparts in schools is fairly well documented, for some reason it seems that the value added by support staff in FE institutions is somewhat harder to discern from teacher education literature, internal reporting or government reviews.
Vital opportunities missed
FE teacher training programmes may not always widely equip new lecturers with ways to effectively utilise support staff, leaving some teachers unsure how best to deploy them. Training programmes, aimed largely at practice in schools, may obscure the true identity, value and purpose of the FE learning support assistant (LSA).
Staff development activities for support workers often lump them into one-size-fits-all events in which their real impact is rarely ever gauged or measured. LSAs may not always be strongly encouraged to pursue their own CPD, and those who do often receive very little kudos and don’t get the opportunity to make a difference.
Direct communication between more senior management and LSAs can often be difficult to initiate and maintain. As a result, LSAs’ huge amount of exposure to teaching, learning and assessment across the curriculum – which can even rival that of some learning coaches, senior managers or Ofsted inspectors – can dissipate into the ether, with vital opportunities being missed to evaluate and improve the learner experience.
This seems a real shame because many support staff possess extensive classroom experience, which could add great value to a range of curriculum activities that could feed into key initiatives.
This experience could include areas such as: the observation of teaching and learning; the use of technology; equality, diversity and inclusion; differentiation; behaviour management; development of literacy and numeracy; and learner achievement and retention; as well as progression into employment.
Excellent opportunities to get support staff involved, give them a proper sense of value and make real friends of these hard-working colleagues are there for the taking. For those who haven’t yet discovered how, here are some initial suggestions that may help.
Show an interest
Find out your LSA’s area of interest, expertise or experience and try to work with their strengths. Write their name on each lesson plan, communicate your expectation of them throughout the lesson and ensure that they have sight of a plan in every session – not just during observations.
Involve LSAs in formative assessment methods by letting them know how you intend to gauge student progress. Work with LSAs to identify the best way to monitor student learning and performance, and involve them in recapping key aims and objectives during, and at the end of, each session. Use information about learner progress to help LSAs to encourage students to nurture a growth mindset, acquire independent study skills and develop more autonomous approaches.
Ask support staff about their learners’ needs in key areas such as literacy, numeracy and ICT. Collaboration with LSAs in these areas may also help students who do not receive additional learning support.
Focus on outcomes
Work with LSAs to help students appreciate how learning may have direct application in employment, training or further study. Encourage LSAs to work with supported learners to build up a portable digital portfolio that can help them to articulate their work-based skills – and their learning needs – to future providers or employers.
Give support staff regular, constructive feedback on both their own and their learners’ performance. Work together on areas that may require improvement, but emphasise ways in which the LSA’s input has added real value. Be proactive in letting the LSA’s managers know how things are going and remember to communicate the value and impact of support for learning to senior leaders and quality review teams. Request that their managers incorporate feedback into performance reviews and appraisals. Also, encourage LSAs to provide appropriate and constructive feedback whenever the opportunity arises.
Measures like these can go a long way to raising an LSA’s self-esteem and feeling of being valued. Next time a support assistant comes into your classroom, what could you do to befriend them and utilise their skills?
Paul Warren works as a learning support assistant in FE colleges in the South of England
This is an article from the 25 March edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here