"It's a lot of money to pass the pencils," as one educational commentator said recently of teaching assistants. TAs, who earn on average a little over #163;11,000 for a 22-hour week, may not feel pampered. But as their numbers have soared, encouraged by a government eager to liberate teachers from routine clerical work and to hit numeracy and literacy targets, so has their cost. TAs now account for a quarter of the entire school workforce in England and Wales. The total annual bill is approximately #163;4.2 billion, according to official figures. That is a lot for pencil-passing.
Most TAs, of course, do much more than that. They not only tame photocopiers and marshal paint pots, they also coax reluctant learners, calm the boisterous and tend to the academically weak. For many teachers, an excellent TA embodies the best of a school. Now a government-sponsored report has cast doubt on their worth (page 6).
The good news, according to the report, is that teachers, after being initially snooty, feel that TAs have reduced their clerical workload. Two-thirds say they are satisfied with their TAs' performance, and the same proportion believes that, as a result, they are less stressed. Many teachers are extremely complimentary about the impact TAs have on classroom behaviour and overall classroom management.
Unfortunately, the report contains this unforgiving line: "The more support pupils received, the less progress they made." Not only did TAs not help pupil attainment, in most cases they made matters worse. That is a pretty damning assessment and, at first glance, it seems counterintuitive. It becomes explicable when one looks at how TAs are used. In class, TAs are almost exclusively assigned to help struggling pupils. The more contact these pupils have with support staff, the less attention they receive from teachers. As most TAs lack teaching or specialised qualifications, they concentrate on the pupil completing the task rather than understanding it - they provide, in the words of the authors, "alternative, rather than additional, support". The weakest are, in effect, being taught by the weakest. Even non-supported children fail to benefit. Their performance does not improve even as TAs occupy their more challenged classmates.
None of this is the fault of TAs. Some 60 per cent of support staff were not asked for qualifications on appointment and most, it must be remembered, are not involved in pupil attainment. For those that are, few schools schedule time for planning or feedback, with the result that many TAs have to pick up lessons on the hoof. Interestingly, other surveys cited by the report show that when TAs are trained for a specific task, such as literacy, they can make a difference.
The blame must rest with the Government. Why was so much invested in a strategy with no proven results? Why is so little being done on the ground to develop TAs? Why were schools encouraged to blur the lines between teaching and support? Schools clearly need their support staff. Pupils who struggle the most clearly need the best support. And that, clearly, means they need a teacher.
Gerard Kelly, Editor, E firstname.lastname@example.org.