A pilot project is aiming to revolutionise the way schools use teaching assistants, after research showed that they were more likely to hamper pupil progress than aid it.
The initiative is seeing researchers from the Institute of Education, University of London (IoE), work with schools to examine ways of using TAs more effectively in the classroom, amid fears that their impact is being lost through poor deployment, lack of training and inadequate preparation.
So far the team has worked with 26 schools, with another 14 joining the pilot next month and more recruits expected to join over the next six months.
Department for Education figures show there are now more teaching assistants than teachers in primary schools in England, 257,300 compared to 242,300. In secondary schools there are 70,700 TAs and 257,300 teachers.
But a six-year study by IoE academics cast doubt on the impact of TAs, concluding that the more support pupils received, the less progress they made. A follow-up study aimed to develop models for more effective use of support staff based on the shortfalls identified in the original research.
Now the institute has started working with schools to put these strategies into practice.
Rob Webster, a researcher at the IoE and one of the authors of both the original report and the follow-up study, said their work had identified three major obstacles to making good use of TAs: the way they were deployed, the way they interacted with pupils, and lack of preparation.
He said TAs were frequently used to support children with special needs, but their presence had the unintended consequence of separating these pupils from the rest of the class. TAs were also more likely to spoon-feed children and be concerned with finishing a task than ensuring learning was taking place, and had no forum for exchanging information, he added.
These deficiencies reflected more on their management and training than on the support staff themselves, he said.
A key part of the new project is working with school leaders to come up with a more effective way of using support staff, and formulating a role for TAs which is more about helping pupils develop soft-skills, such as independent learning.
“We want headteachers to do the kind of strategic thinking to answer the question of what they want the contribution of TAs to be,” said Mr Webster. “And teachers have to think more clearly and purposely about what they want the TA to do in the lesson.
“It is a tall order, but the schools that have rolled up their sleeves and said they’re going to really think about this are feeling much more positive about it and feel it is going to propel them in the right direction.”
Approaches used so far include teachers spending more time with pupils normally supported by TAs, TAs working with a wider range of children and teachers spending part of the lesson co-teaching with a TA. Schools have also been adjusting support staff contracts to allow for preparation time.
“If we’re going to make best use of TAs and we’re going to maximise their value, we have got to give them time to meet, and that means investing to get the most out of them.”
Although the project is not aiming to measure the effect on attainment of its interventions, Mr Webster said just taking part had made school leaders and teachers think more carefully about their use of support staff.
“There is a lot of focus on the role of the teacher, and that is only right, but there also needs to be a focus on what we want these additional adults to be doing. We have to think through better ways of using them,” he added.