'The government is not investing enough in teaching assistants, or giving them the recognition they deserve'

Teaching assistants deserve to be recognised as professionals: valued and appreciated, properly trained and paid, says the head of education workforce at the trade union UNISON

Jon Richards

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UNISON has long argued that teaching assistants (TAs) play a vital role in boosting quality and standards. Recent research by the Education Endowment Foundation and ongoing projects such as the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) make it clear that well deployed TAs with high-quality support and training can make a significant positive impact on pupil learning. Additionally, from our own research we know that headteachers value the teaching assistant role in providing structured and targeted interventions, support for teachers, liaison with parents, and as links with other agencies.

But where are the necessary resources to provide the training and development to make this happen? Across the UK and across all industries, training budgets are consistently focused on higher-level professionals, rather than the whole workforce. With impending funding cuts and the new apprenticeship levy diverting funds, the situation is likely to get worse as decent headteachers and school business managers rummage around the back of the sofa for a few spare coppers.

There is depressingly little support from the government for investment in the professionalisation of the TA workforce or the wider school support-staff team. Show me a speech by a government minister for England in the last five years that has included positive references to support staff? What we have seen in this time is the undermining of the professional standing of teaching assistants: the withdrawal of all the training resources produced by the sadly defenestrated School Support Staff Negotiating Body; the sneaky abandonment of the guidance to the national occupational standards for learning support and the inglorious retreat from publishing TA professional standards (which had been agreed by all, but were struck down by a minister's pen). 

Government-endorsed standards would have shown that the Department for Education understands the importance to TAs that they are seen as professionals. Still, nae bother, UNISON, working with the National Education Trust (NET), MITA, NAHT heads' union, Reading Teaching School Alliance, a number of specialist practitioners and a highly-regarded research institution (that modestly didn’t want to be identified) published the standards anyway and they are increasingly being used in progressive schools across the country.

'Teaching assistants deserve recognition'

So much else has been lost – back in its day, the Training and Development Agency (TDA) had a £10 million support staff budget, but this was scrapped before the agency itself was immolated in the coalition government’s bonfire of the quangos. In 2010, funding for higher-level teaching assistants was eliminated, and in 2014 the list of administrative tasks that teachers had been proscribed from doing (to relieve their workload) and that support staff did instead, was scrapped. Also scrapped in 2015 were the national scholarships available to SEND support staff.

The National College of Teaching and Leadership (which picked up the TDA’s work) doesn’t have any interest in school support staff, despite their stated aim to develop ‘a workforce to meet the needs of our school system’. Their former CEO floundered when questioned on this by the Education Select Committee. It is appalling that the 50 per cent of the school workforce who work as teaching assistants or in other support staff roles don’t seem to be seen as part of the workforce by the government.

In this yawning gap, UNISON has stepped in, relaunching Skills for Schools, our training and development website, which is open to all. It provides a hub for information on options for training and career development, and links to resources.

We have also updated various professional guides – including our Career Framework and Continuing Professional Development for Teaching Assistants guides, aimed at school leadership teams (co-produced by NET).

Teaching assistants deserve to be recognised as professionals: valued and appreciated, properly trained and paid, and able to progress through a proper career structure. We would love to see a positive focus on CPD, training and development for teaching assistants, not just because this benefits support staff but because, as the research shows, it could have a great impact on pupil learning. Professionalism is not just for those at the top.

Jon Richards is head of education workforce at Unison. He tweets at @tiddymoke

Read about how the role of the teaching assistant has changed, and why we need to do more to acknowledge and reward our TAs in the cover feature of the 24 February issue of TES.

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