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Five steps to maximise the impact of teaching assistants  

If you have a TA in your classroom, these five steps will ensure you utilise their skillset to support students

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If you have a TA in your classroom, these five steps will ensure you utilise their skillset to support students

If you are lucky, your school may have avoided the worst of the cuts and you will have a teaching assistant or special educational needs and disability (SEND) teacher supporting students in your classroom. This is an extra level of support we should never take for granted – so how do we ensure we make the most of it by utilising the expertise of that additional member of staff?

1. Do your homework

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to write an article on additional adults in the classroom without referencing the excellent work of Rob Webster, Anthony Russell and Peter Blatchford. Their book Maximising The Impact of Teaching Assistants can be found on most Sencos desks up and down the country. Read it! 

2. Empower your teaching assistants

This is a simple but effective step. Do not just rely on calling your TA "miss" or "sir". Using names is the first step in building a positive working relationship and it also raises the profile of your TA in the eyes of the students. Empower your TA by giving them specific roles in the classroom. Say to your students, "myself and Mr Smith will be checking that you have done such-and-such". 

Provide TAs with the opportunity to reward students, although tread carefully when it comes to TAs handing out sanctions. Some TAs may not feel comfortable doing this and it is not their job – it is the responsibility of the teacher.  However, if a TA identifies unacceptable behaviour in your classroom ensure that you act upon what they have said. You need to show the students that you are a team and that you are working together for the benefit of their education.

Some schools may have a TA-teacher agreement in place. This can be useful, particularly if you have a high-turnover of staff or a large SEND team, in identifying the strengths and areas of expertise of your TAs. Make sure that you play to the strengths of the TAs in your classroom. They are an incredibly valuable and increasingly rare resource.

3. Know your responsibility

In the Send Code of Practice it is stated that "the class or subject teacher should remain responsible for working with the child [with additional needs]... they should work closely with any teaching assistants or specialist staff..." (Send Code of Practice, 2015: 6.52).

Although TAs are trained to support the specific needs of students with identified additional needs, the teacher is the expert on how to teach their subject. Therefore, teachers must prioritise their SEND students, be familiar with their individual education plans and they must spend time with them in the lessons. 

'Teachers must become the adult with who pupils with SEN have regular, sustained and focused interactions..." (Webster et al, 2016). 

Thankfully the days where young people with additional needs were plonked in a corner with a TA and forgotten about by the class teacher are long gone.

4. Ensure a TA is not a replacement for thoughtful differentiation

Planning effective lessons is tough and with teachers' workloads becoming increasingly heavy it is possible to let things slip a bit. However, relying heavily on your TA to differentiate your lessons "on the hoof" is not acceptable. Neither is relying entirely on differentiation by outcome – although that is not to say that it is not appropriate sometimes. 

It can appear hard to strike the balance between thoughtful differentiation and writing 25 different lesson plans for the same lesson. What is needed is for teachers to make small tweaks to their plans or resources. For example, it could be the types of question you ask a student with identified additional needs or the way in which you ask them to present their findings. What should not be happening is the TA coaxing the student through a task, because this is not effective and the learner is unlikely to make progress.

TAs and teachers should be collaborating to enable students to become independent and confident learners and not passive members of the class. This brings me neatly to my next point…

5. Building bridges between a young person and curriculum

"Children who had LSA support all of the time did less well than children who had LSA support some of the time."  Lamb Inquiry (2009)

The aim of teachers and TAs should be to build bridges between the young person and the curriculum. The old-fashioned model of the TA being velcroed to the side of a young person should hopefully be assigned to the history books. Instead, adults should be facilitating independence and encouraging young people to take calculated risks with their learning. TAs need to be visible within the classroom, circulating and offering support to all students, while prioritising those with identified additional needs.

The Institute of Education, UCL, has carried out extensive research on the scaffolding role of the TA, which they identify as: support (with attention, behaviour and motivation), repair (offering assistance when the student is facing difficulties) and heuristic (developing the young person's self-help, learning strategies). 

Through their research, they have created a hierarchy of responses for helping a student who is finding a task challenging. The first strategy should be silence, providing the young person with time to think about possible solutions. Then, in order of priority: prompting, clueing, modelling and, lastly, correcting.

Gemma Corby is Sendco at Hobart High School, Norfolk. Her Sendco column for Tes runs every second Tuesday in term-time. To read Gemma's back catalogue, click here.

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