“If we said, ‘On Monday, when you go back to school, there will be no teaching assistants (TAs)’, I doubt very much schools would make it to the end of the week,” says Rob Webster, an academic at the UCL Institute of Education (IoE). “TAs are the mortar in the brickwork.”
Webster heads up the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants initiative for the UCL Centre for Inclusive Education and is one of the country’s leading researchers into the role of TAs.
Speaking on this week’s Tes Podagogy podcast, he talks about how the role of TAs has been underappreciated and largely ignored by the government.
“You would struggle to find a speech, or a substantive bit of a speech, by an education minister that deals with support staff, or specifically teaching assistants,” he explains. “That is a curiosity when you consider the numbers: there are around 390,000 people working in schools as a teaching assistant or similar. It is a lot of people – and it is estimated it costs the system £5 billion per year. So why would successive governments not have anything to say about them?”
He believes this “policy blackhole” from government about what a TA should be doing has given rise to bad practice in schools.
“As a teacher, it is easy to think that if I have someone to take those five or six children [with special educational needs and disability (SEND)] and they will give them the small group attention they need, then that must be a good thing, and I can concentrate on everyone else,” he says. “It is seen as a win-win. But there are unintended consequences of that.
“You ask schools what TAs do, they tell you they support children with SEND, support learning, support the teacher. But what does good support look like? That gets very fuzzy. We need to pin down as a system what we think good support is. Without that, we will always get patchy practice – and a drift towards what looks like it is most helpful, but that is not.”
Do we know what good support looks like? In the podcast, Webster details the research that gives us a good idea on what works.
“When you have TAs delivering highly structured interventions, the outcomes are profoundly positive,” he says. “We know that when used properly, when they supplement teaching, delivering structured interventions, TAs are really effective.”
You can listen for free by downloading the podcast from iTunes or listening below.