Nearly half of full-time roles in primary schools and a fifth in secondary schools are filled not by teachers, but by teaching assistants. In fact, today there are 263,000 FTE TAs in England’s schools, up from 50,000 in 1995.
Every teacher will tell you how essential the increase has been to their practice, but behind this massive rise is a sad tale of exploitation and mismanagement.
The role that started life as a useful aide in the classroom has now grown to become an indispensable resource. But what has not accompanied that mission creep and increased responsibility is official guidance, acknowledgement or pay.
Successive governments have failed to define what a TA should do. They have flirted with issuing guidelines but have never followed through. And that’s not because they haven’t had anything to work with either: there has been some excellent research to inform them.
The five-year Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project was the largest study of teaching assistants and support staff in the world, and the first to systematically examine their impact on pupil outcomes and teacher workloads. It was published in 2009 and named by the British Educational Research Association as one of 40 landmark studies to have had a significant impact on education in the past 40 years. Despite this, no policy followed.
The Education Endowment Foundation, too, has published its Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants guidance, which provides seven evidence-based recommendations to help schools maximise the impact of TAs.
But with no clear definition from the government, schools are left to try to piece together what they think a TA should do, an approach underlined by a Department for Education spokeswoman who says in our cover story that “it is up to individual schools to decide how to train, develop and use their TAs effectively”.
This has left the role to evolve as “wing and prayer stuff”, says one of the DISS report’s co-authors, Rob Webster.
What this means is that some schools have amazing practice informed by the research, while others do exactly the opposite of what the research says. In one school, a TA could be team teaching, assisting in planning, providing vital insight on different pupils. In another, they could be what is in effect a babysitter for children with SEND, getting no guidance whatsoever from the teacher.
There seems to be no great desire in the DfE to intervene. Efforts were made by the Labour government to define such roles as higher level teaching assistants – and to formalise TA pay structures. But Michael Gove’s crusade to deregulate schools largely put paid to them.
This lack of clarity also allows for schools to react very differently to the funding cuts many are suffering: some appear to be laying off TAs in swathes; others are using them to act up as teachers, allowing schools to reduce teacher headcount.
Despite this muddle, the government continues to bankroll an expansion of a role that is largely undefined, with no clear guidance on practice, training or responsibilities.
This comes at a time when TAs are needed more than ever: as numbers of children with SEND rocket in mainstream schools, and teachers are stretched owing to huge shortages and funding, we need TAs to be effective as possible.
But there lies the rub. To address the problems TAs face means that government has to acknowledge issues around recruitment and SEND provision. Recent history suggests such admissions are unlikely to be forthcoming. And so TAs, or assistant teachers as some of them would like to be known, will continue to be sold short.