Six steps to ensure effective TA-led interventions

When teaching assistants (TAs) are used properly, the impact on students is considerable, says leading researcher

Rob Webster

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In the past five years, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has published 60 independent evaluations of its funded trials. While fewer than 30% have returned a positive finding, all seven trials relating to TA-led interventions have a 100% success rate. Across these trials, pupils made, on average, three months’ additional progress with a TA-led intervention.

The significance of these accumulated results can’t be overstated. To see consistent effects lining up, one after the other, seven times in a row, within a relatively short span of time is – in research terms – virtually unheard of.

Add to this compelling evidence showing exactly the same thing happening in American schools, and it’s almost beyond doubt that there’s something important and unignorable about what we’re observing in relation to TA impact.

The positive effects seen for TAs delivering structured interventions challenges the idea that only certified teachers can provide effective one-to-one or small group support. But crucially, these effects are only found where careful consideration has been given to the quality of the materials, training and coaching, and the organisational and environmental factors, which together allow TAs – and pupils – to flourish.

As my EEF colleague, Jonathan Sharples, says: the issue is not whether schools should deploy TAs to deliver interventions, it’s how.

So, what does great implementation of TA-led interventions look like? Here are my top tips:

  1. Keep up, not catch up
    Pupils are typically withdrawn from classrooms for interventions, so it should be a prerequisite of any TA-led programme that it at least compensates for time spent away from the teacher. First and foremost, meet learning needs inside the class.

  2. Review, reject and replace
    Conduct an interventions health-check: are you using evidence-based interventions? If so, are they used as intended, with the appropriate guidance and training? Bin those that aren’t having an impact, and introduce interventions that have been independently evaluated for impact, such as the EEF’s magnificent seven. Work towards offering a slim menu of proven interventions, carefully selected and judiciously used.

  3. Be faithful
    If the instructions say ‘deliver this programme three times a week, for 30 minutes, to groups of no more than four pupils’, don’t be tempted to do anything else – even if it seems more efficient to involve more children or cut the session length. Changing the delivery protocols reduces the chances of success.

  4. Stick to the script
    Some programmes come with a script or resources. Ensure they’re used as directed. Once TAs become familiar with the materials, you might consider intelligent adaptation. In the early phases, stick to the script.

  5. Co-ordinate, cohere and complement
    Make learning outside of the classroom relatable inside the classroom. Teachers and TAs should ask questions that help pupils apply, demonstrate and consolidate new learning. Secondary schools could consider giving English and maths departments responsibility for managing intervention and co-ordinating TAs’ day-to-day roles. This ensures teachers have full control of the variables they need to plan and deliver effective provision. In primary schools, teachers should align the content of strategically selected intervention programmes with wider coverage of literacy and numeracy.

  6. Location, location, location
    On my travels, I’ve seen TAs leading interventions in corridors, cupboards and cafeterias. Consider where interventions are being delivered, as the environment might be inhibiting successful learning. Finding space isn’t always easy, but try to avoid busy spaces, especially for pupils with sensory needs or who are easily distracted.

Rob Webster is director of the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) project and a researcher at UCL Institute of Education.

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