Teaching assistants were key in allowing schools to keep running during the winter lockdown and are the "unsung heroes" of the pandemic, researchers have said.
Just over half of TAs (51 per cent) managed a class or a bubble on their own as class teachers were delivering remote teaching during the lockdown, new research shows.
And nearly one in four TAs took on new responsibilities without any training, a report by researchers at University College London shows.
But despite their contribution to the functioning of schools during the pandemic, only a quarter of TAs (27 per cent) said their school had become more aware of their role.
Rob Webster, from the UCL Centre for Inclusive Education, said: “TAs have been absolutely key in allowing schools to keep functioning during the pandemic.
Teaching assistants 'have a vital role in Covid catch-up'
“Our report highlights that in many ways teaching assistants have been the ‘unsung heroes’ of the pandemic and it is hard to see how schools could have managed without them.
“Some respondents described themselves as working ‘on the frontline’ and shouldering much of the responsibility for keeping schools open.”
Gemma Moss, from the UCL Institute of Education, added that the research shows that the work required to keep schools functioning intensified as schools entered the winter lockdown, as a legal requirement to supply remote education to children at home was introduced.
Professor Moss added: “At the same time the government extended the list of parents who could classify as critical or key workers, resulting in considerably higher numbers of children in school compared to previous lockdowns.
“This increased workload for teachers and TAs, who had to find ways of managing children in school and providing lesson content for those at home, and our findings suggest this may have led to increased anxiety as TAs juggled many different tasks.”
The research also shows that while managing groups of vulnerable and key worker children in school, TAs played an important role in supporting remote learning for children, including providing differentiated support.
The report authors made three recommendations in light of the findings.
First of all, all staff wellbeing needs to be considered equally along with student wellbeing.
Secondly, they called on the government to invest in TAs as part of the recovery planning, because their knowledge of their school communities means they are well placed to help schools and pupils catch up.
And thirdly, it insists that all staff need to be recognised fully for their contribution to the school community.
Dr Webster concluded: “The Covid crisis has underlined the value of the contribution TAs make to their schools. Their insights and knowledge should be drawn on in the effort to rebuild education.
“Our research reveals just how essential TAs are to the day-to-day running of schools. This is true in more normal times as well as during a pandemic. And if we are to build a more resilient education system going forward, then their voices need to be heard.”
The study was funded by trade union Unison and analysed data from 9,055 teaching assistants.
Unison head of education Jon Richards said: "Teaching and classroom assistants were crucial to the smooth running of schools before the pandemic. Schools have relied upon them even more so this past year. This research proves that. But for too long they've been taken for granted.
"Support staff have an important role to play in the drive to get all children to where they need to be, both emotionally and academically. They also provide essential support to children with special and additional needs.
"However, staffing ratios have been increasing and many higher-level posts cut. This has piled the pressure on, and increased the workload of poorly paid lower-grade employees who are frequently asked to cover work they're not trained to do.
"Teaching and classroom assistants have a vital role in helping pupils catch up on their lost learning post-pandemic. But to do this they need proper training and a decent wage."