Higher-level teaching assistants (HLTAs) can have a positive impact on children's behaviour and achievements at school, researchers have found.
The small-scale study by staff at Anglia Ruskin University provides a different angle on the broader debate about the effectiveness of support staff in the classroom.
Separate research by academics in London has questioned the impact that teaching assistants, who often receive little training, have on young people's achievements.
But a pair of training staff at Anglia Ruskin chose to look specifically at HLTAs, a role that was introduced by the Labour government as part of the teacher workforce reforms agreed in 2003.
To achieve HLTA status, teaching assistants (TAs) have to get the agreement of their head, pass an assessment and arrange funding. Local authorities or individual schools then put successful candidates on to a preparation course.
Government funding for the courses ended in 2010, a decision that the researchers say has led to "concerns" among the school leaders they interviewed.
The study was carried out by staff from Mpowernet, part of Anglia Ruskin's Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education. They questioned TAs who had been on one of the university's HLTA courses between 2006 and 2011, as well as senior leaders at their schools.
Research by the University of London's Institute of Education, published in 2009, found that pupils who receive intensive help from TAs make less progress than their classmates.
But all of the senior managers questioned in the Anglia Ruskin survey said that employing HLTAs had "impacted positively upon the school" and student achievement. And they all agreed that pupils were more engaged in their work and more confident when they were supported by HLTAs.
Almost 90 per cent agreed that they had seen specific improvements in performance and improved behaviour among those supported by HLTAs. The same proportion thought that HLTAs had taken on "extended roles" after gaining their new status, that their skills had improved and that they were more "confident practitioners".
One school leader said that their HLTAs were "worth more than their weight in gold".
"They've become cult figures with the students, especially at exam times. We were determined to buck national statistics, which reflected the long-held notion that boys were better than girls in maths.
"The work that (the HLTAs) have tirelessly put in has really helped to turn this around. Our results for girls have increased significantly and it's done the boys good, too, to realise that the girls are just as good, if not better."
Another school leader said that her school's HLTA was now showing similar levels of professionalism to teachers as she fulfilled her new role. "She has been able to expand her practice by working across the school from reception to Year 2. This is a small school, so we are able to use her skills to a maximum. She's totally competent and is given her own planning, preparation and assessment time."
The study found that HLTAs are working with whole classes as well as one-to-one and with small groups of pupils. The assistants said that their role in school had broadened since qualifying.
"I've always felt valued, but now I'm much more able to see how much I do and can offer," one said. "The main difference is that I cover all classes now and I am really able to draw on what we did (in our training to become an) HLTA, which makes it a lot more rewarding."
Another HLTA said: "I've learned so much from working closely with the teachers here and I am well respected by them and the pupils. I've really been able to apply my mathematical skills and generic knowledge and understanding, particularly in terms of planning and starter activities."
The study was carried out by training and development officers Colin Sowter and Carole Rowe from Mpowernet. They are keen to stress that the participating schools are likely to be "pro-HLTA" as they have all sent more than one member of staff on one of the university's preparation courses since 2006.
"Our study suggests that when support staff are properly managed they can make a positive difference to teaching and learning, growing in personal and professional confidence and competence," Sowter says. "So the key issue is schools investing in the management of their support staff and their continuing professional development."
A short version of the HLTA Impact Study can be found at: http:bit.lywk8O8S
FORCE FOR GOOD
How the HLTAs were being used
Working with pupils predicted to get a D grade at GCSE to help them improve their grades.
Running adult literacy and numeracy tests for children so that they have an equivalent qualification to a GCSE.
Personalising the curriculum for Year 10 and Year 11 students.
With a teacher, running vocational-style programmes for Years 10 and 11 featuring lessons on nutrition and health, equality and diversity and employability skills.
Working off-site with pupils at a private pupil referral unit.
Running English as an additional language (EAL) programmes, which involve one-to-one or group work.
Marisa Leaver and Emma Griffin, of Thomas More Catholic School in Purley, Surrey, recently trained as HLTAs. Before this they were both TAs, working one-to-one with pupils who have special educational needs. They did hardly any group or class work.
Now they run vocational courses for Year 10 and 11 students, teaching in a team or working on their own. They have been told that the achievements of their pupils are worth 10 per cent of the school's five A*-C league table figure. Leaver is now the school's EAL coordinator.
"The kids we work with need lots of self-esteem," Griffin says. "One very troubled pupil has come alive with us in these courses we run, the additional GCSE options. His mum has thanked us for 'lighting a spark' in her son.
"He's now on track for his equivalent of a GCSE grade B in both equality and diversity, and nutrition and health. I have also sorted out all the Year 10s' work experience - 150 pupils - and we'll be supporting them during the two weeks of their experience. We were given this responsibility as a result of gaining HLTA status."