How can we reconcile undertaking the actions needed to unlock the potential of teaching assistants (TAs) at a time when budgetary pressures mean more are back-filling teacher shortages?
A survey by ATL in February found a high proportion of support staff are doing lesson cover on top of their existing demands.
The drift to using TAs for cover raises two interconnected concerns: firstly, there is the risk of TAs being over-stretched and, worse still, exploited; and secondly, there is the impact on children with Send.
The pay problem
TAs’ pay has been a persistent issue for years. The case for greater pay tends to be justified on the basis that, in practice, TAs do a similar job to teachers. I take the slightly different view that TAs deserve better salaries because they have an important role that’s distinct from, but complementary to, teachers’. Defining "appropriate pay" is too complex an issue to deal with here, but I absolutely agree it should be more than the "just about managing" wage endemic to the job.
Yet the odds of resolving this genuine, long-standing dispute lengthen daily, as the parlous state of school funding is laid bare. Unless the government dramatically revises its position, the only realistic way TAs can be paid more is for schools to have far fewer of them. It’s catch-22.
No-one wants TA redundancies any more than teacher redundancies. But survey after survey suggests lay-offs are high in the minds of school leaders. In some schools, this grim reality has already set in.
If the future looks unsettled for TAs, it’s just as bad, if not worse, for our most vulnerable learners. To the perfect storm of real-terms cuts, teacher recruitment and retention, and the rise in the need for, but actual shortfall of, special school places and teachers, we can add the real and present threat to TA numbers and the drift away from TAs being used how research suggests they should be. This matters enormously.
A strong theme across years of extensive research (see here and here) is the high reliance placed on TAs to facilitate inclusion, and ensure pupils with Send can access teaching and achieve. Like flood waters receding to reveal the devastation on homes, it is likely that large-scale TA redundancies and displacement of the TA role to cover teachers will expose a systemic weakness in how we include and meet the needs of these pupils.
A key tenet of the 2014 Send Code of Practice – that “special educational provision is underpinned by high-quality teaching and is compromised by anything less” – is about to receive its sternest test.
Better use of TAs
Effective deployment of TAs can only ever be part of a wider system-wide response to educating and improving outcomes for learners with Send. In the government’s preferred model of a sector-led system, initiatives such as Whole School SEND, which promotes strategic and practical collaborative approaches, will become increasingly vital.
Implementing strategies to improve the deployment of TAs in classrooms, effective planning and preparation, and improving TAs’ interactions with pupils, needn’t break the bank. Crucially, schools that invest time in improving practice in these areas report improved outcomes for pupils.
Schools cherish their TAs because of the essential support they provide to pupils with Send. I don’t disagree, but I feel there’s another type of value we’re less keen to talk about: the one derived from a lack of alternatives to including and meeting the needs of children and young people with learning difficulties. Circumstances may force us to confront an inconvenient truth about how we do inclusion.
Rob Webster is director of the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) project and a researcher at UCL Institute of Education. He is a member of the Whole School SEND steering group. For free downloadable guidance and resources on making better use of TAs, visit maximisingtas.co.uk.