Within the world of SEND provision, there are fewer vexed questions than, “How do you use the teaching assistant?”
This is no surprise: TAs are an invaluable resource, but it is possible to get the use of TAs horribly wrong.
For starters, children can get too attached to the support and eventually everyone – be it the teacher, parent, TA or other professions working with the child – can get too attached to each other. Then you have the issue that vulnerable learners can develop the tendency to move further away from the teacher. As a result, they can fall further behind.
Coming at it from the wrong angle
To try and avoid these negative outcomes, a plethora of advice and rules about the deployment of TAs has come into being. The thing that strikes me about all of this advice being written by teachers and Sendcos, though, is whether we aren’t guilty of looking at it from the wrong direction.
Let me explain. Last year, I was enormously privileged to have the opportunity to visit the National Star College, a college for young people with learning and physical disabilities. As a primary teacher, I don’t often get to see what happens when the children get to be bigger than me and it was a visit that made a lasting impression. I took away with me many things, but the one thing that it taught me that schools would do well to consider when we think about support, and the nature of the support we give to children and young people with SEND, is this: from the moment they arrive, we are working towards the day they leave.
We have a tendency as teachers to get tied up with immediate details. It is part of the nature of the job; we respond to thousands of decisions; we have a hundred different calls upon our time and 30-odd equal demands upon our attention. Sometimes getting to the end of the week – let alone the end of schooling itself – is a challenge. So of course, having a clear-cut policy, especially where decisions are difficult, such as the deployment of TAs, is an important necessity.
'The letter, rather than the spirit, of the law'
The danger is, though, that in this scenario the policy can become the important thing, rather than the needs of the child. My dad would say we become guilty of following the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law.
Sadly for us, teaching – especially teaching children with SEND – does not fall into handy equations of input A plus input B equals output C; we must consider each child individually.
This would be a pain for managers; I get that. But when I think about the vulnerability of the children with SEND that we teach, when I think of the mainstream world outside of education that they must negotiate without us, then that is what we must do.
Turn the telescope around. Put the child at the beginning and work out the rest from there.