Whether you see them as invaluable or ineffective, it cannot be denied that teaching assistants (TAs) have completely transformed classroom life.
There can be few teachers in the primary or secondary sector who do not have regular contact with this breed of school support staff. And their influence has rapidly increased over the past decade. In 2000, the equivalent of 79,000 full-time TAs were patrolling our classes; by the end of 2010, the number had more than doubled to almost 208,000. In total, the latest figures show, there are more than 340,000 full and part-time TAs employed at English state schools.
But while the rise of TAs continued relentlessly under the previous Labour government, their lustre has seemingly dimmed since the coalition came to power. "The government never mentions support staff any more - it's all about teachers," says Jon Richards, senior national officer for education at Unison, the union with the most school support staff members (and, as a direct result, the biggest education union).
"There has been a general downgrading of the role of teaching assistants," Richards says. "The last government seemed to want to pump up the numbers, while the new one is just ignoring them totally."
This apparent loss of enthusiasm for TAs has led to more scrutiny being given to their role and effectiveness. A study by the University of London's Institute of Education, Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants, argues that lazy assumptions about how TAs should be deployed have hindered not only their personal development, but also their usefulness to the teachers they are supposed to be assisting.
"One of the worst ways in which TAs are used is the very laissez-faire approach to supporting children with most need," co-author Professor Peter Blatchford explains. "This is when those children get more one-to-one attention, while the teacher works with the rest of the class."
The theory was that the teacher and most able pupils would canter through the curriculum without disruption, while their less able classmates would get the extra, individual support they needed to ensure that they were not left too far behind.
But a 2009 report on the deployment and influence of support staff was the first to come to a somewhat surprising conclusion: the pupils given the most TA support actually performed worse than those without it.
"The findings were unexpected," Blatchford says. So he, Anthony Russell and Rob Webster were commissioned to conduct a more in-depth study to confirm whether the initial analysis was correct and, if so, why this was the case.
This latest study left nothing to chance. It critically examined the effect of TA support on the academic progress of 8,200 pupils, made extensive systematic observations of nearly 700 pupils and more than 100 TAs, and collected data from nearly 20,000 questionnaires over a two-year period, providing a far bigger sample to use as a base for its conclusions. Audio tapes of interactions between teachers, TAs and pupils were also recorded.
This time, there could be no doubt. The research proved that the findings of the 2009 report were no fluke. "The results were even more persuasive," Blatchford says. And with the facts to back up his study, the report caused him to take a completely fresh look at the use of TAs.
While the results may have appeared surprising to some, the explanation for them, he believes, has been staring everyone in the face. "The weakest students become separated from the teacher and the curriculum. It's no surprise they are not making the same progress; they are not on the same educational diet. It's so obvious."
Training is sorely needed
The blame, Blatchford feels, should not be placed at the door of TAs themselves. They are, in many cases, poorly deployed by teachers who have no idea what to do with them. "The lack of training for teachers on how they work with TAs is woeful. Practically every teacher works with one, yet they don't receive training on how to manage them."
His concerns are shared by Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. "TAs are a resource to be used in your classroom," he says. They are part of the armoury teachers have to use, but training (in how to work with TAs) is something that's often overlooked. It's certainly something that should be considered in schools as part of teachers' professional development."
Rigorous training for TAs can have an equally significant impact in the classroom, their supporters believe. However, it seems the coalition government would beg to differ.
Under a deal struck with the previous Labour administration, TAs have been able to study to become higher level teaching assistants (HLTAs), allowing them to supervise lessons. But within weeks of the 2010 general election, it emerged that training for TAs was being substantially reduced.
According to Unison, this was a serious retrograde step and amounts to the start of what Richards believes has been a gradual downgrading of the role. "One of the first things the government did when it came in was cut funding for support staff when it cut the Training and Development Agency (TDA) training budget."
Putting on a brave face, the TDA insisted that HLTA training would still be available, but said that funding would need to be provided through other sources. "Schools or individuals can continue to fund the training and preparation themselves," a spokeswoman explained. But unions warned that, with schools facing substantial budget cuts and low-paid support staff contemplating an uncertain future, the political message was clear: TAs' role was being downgraded.
The implications for schools are serious. "We need to have well-trained TAs who understand their role in class, not as substitute teachers or to keep disruptive children away," Richards says. "Teachers get all the support; TAs get very little. The training they get would be cost-effective, but they seem to have become invisible to ministers."
This, experts believe, has led to TAs being increasingly unsure of what they should be doing, waiting for instructions from teachers who are equally ignorant of how best to make use of them. "Many of them are going into classes blind - they just have to listen to teachers talk to the class to figure out what to do," Blatchford explains.
Lightman is a firm believer that decisions on how TAs should be used are down to the teachers they are working with; TAs should not be left to their own resources and forced to improvise.
"Teachers are very busy," he acknowledges. "TAs are as well. It's difficult to find time to sit down and plan together. But we are often talking about teachers who are using TAs for the first time and they don't know how to deploy them. A teacher needs to decide the work of a TA ... and apply them in the best interests of the school."
Breaking away from one-on-one
One common way of using TAs is to assign them to children with special educational needs (SEN). During the period in which TA numbers rocketed, the proportion of pupils identified as having SEN also increased, from 15.7 per cent in 2006 to 17.8 per cent last year. Accordingly, schools have assumed that it is best to put the two groups together. Indeed, in many cases, SEN education is judged by how many hours a pupil spends with a TA.
But this approach is misguided and unhelpful, Blatchford argues. "The rise of TAs has become interconnected with children with SEN entering mainstream schools. That's something which had not been planned but, in many schools, they have become linked.
"Teachers shouldn't always put TAs with the low-attaining kids and those with SEN. What about turning this idea on its head, getting the TA to work with the other kids? You can put the TA with the high-attaining kids, while the teacher works with the low attaining ones."
Another myth that Lightman is keen to dispel is the idea that TAs should work exclusively with individual children. "They can be working with a group of children. They can, for instance, work with kids with lots of ability, but who might struggle with something such as spelling. There are many opportunities to use TAs creatively and imaginatively," he says.
But it is precisely this lack of imagination that is holding many TAs back. The Institute of Education research found that the way in which TAs interact with pupils is markedly different from the way teachers and children communicate.
By analysing conversations with pupils, the researchers found that teachers spent more time explaining concepts, giving feedback and linking lessons with prior knowledge and future learning. In contrast, TAs used more prompts, which often supplied pupils with the answer they were looking to elicit.
Of the 16 lessons involving TAs analysed in this study, TAs explained concepts to pupils in just nine; of those, five lessons featured explanations that were either incorrect or confusing.
Blatchford believes that this is due to TAs being assigned the role of troubleshooters rather than being expected to motivate and inspire. "They concentrate on completing the task rather than learning. They close things off cognitively, rather than opening them up. It's not a failure of the TAs, it's a failure in how they are used."
When TAs were given clear instructions and the opportunity to prepare for a lesson, the report's authors noticed that the difference they made was remarkable. "It was amazing seeing the way some TAs started to blossom, going from not knowing what they were doing to having a particular role to play," Blatchford says. "Kids started to see them differently too; it was like having another professional in the class."
By improving communication between teachers and TAs, and teaching both how to work more effectively together, we could see the start of a more mutually productive working relationship.
Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants: How research challenges practice and policy by Peter Blatchford, Anthony Russell and Rob Webster is published by Routledge
TOWARDS A BETTER USE OF TEACHING ASSISTANTS
Conclusions from Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants
What is needed?
- Training in how to work with and manage TAs to be a mandatory part of initial teacher training.
- Full formal induction for TAs.
- More joint planning and feedback time.
- Teachers' plans need to be shared with TAs and supplemented with daily discussion.
- TAs should not routinely support lower attaining pupils and pupils with SEN.
- Address the separation of pupils from the teacher and the curriculum.
- Ensure that the TA role is distinct, but complementary, to that of the teacher.
What school staff have to say
"Because I've been doing the job for so long, and the work rolls over year to year, within five minutes of the lesson I can pick up what's being done."
"(The teacher) puts up the work on the board. I'm then frantically trying to go through it to think of different ways to explain it to (a pupil with SEN)."
"Over the last two or three years, particularly in secondary schools, I think there is more of a general realisation of the fact that (TAs) are around and that they can be rather more useful than some people might have thought."
"There's usually an objective on the board anyway, so the children know, support staff also know what the objective is ... And (our TA is) very in tune as well. They just need to observe what you're doing and carry that through."
Primary deputy headteacher.