Teaching assistants are not dealing with unruly pupils because they are afraid of undermining teachers, according to new research.
A study by Northampton University found that TAs felt “awkward” about their place in the classroom.
And while TAs thought that they should be managing children’s behaviour, Emma Clarke, the study's author and a former primary teacher, found that there was little time for teachers and TAs to talk about how this should be done.
The research, based on in-depth interviews with 30 TAs from 18 schools, found that TAs were relying on guesswork and experience to guide how they managed pupils.
“None of the TAs in this study had ever had a conversation with a teacher about their role in classroom discipline, yet each of them believes it is part of their job,” Dr Clarke said.
“This uncertainty results in TAs feeling too awkward and uncomfortable to manage behaviour, as they don’t develop a clear understanding of the boundaries or their ‘place’ in the classroom.
"Essentially, they often won't act because they don't want to undermine the teacher."
There are 277,500 TAs employed in primary schools across England and Dr Clarke found TA roles varied widely, ranging from pastoral support to administrative duties, academic support and work in partnership with teachers.
"Primary school TAs are being let down by an education system that leaves them ill-prepared and unsure of their role," she said.
"Many teachers don't communicate effectively with TAs due to time pressures and workload, and as a result, there is a very wide gulf in expectations. This leads to a great deal of uncertainty for TAs and often inaction on their part."
Dr Clarke believed confusion over the role had ultimately led – unfairly – to criticism from some quarters that has painted TAs as ineffective and poor value for money.
She said: "TAs could potentially contribute so much more to our children's education if their place in the classroom was properly defined. Classroom behaviour is known to be a key factor in deterring undergraduates from training as teachers.
"With a massive teacher shortage, TAs could be the answer to better classroom behaviour, but this potential is currently being missed.”
The Education Endowment Foundation has invested £5 million in a campaign to help schools make the best use of TAs, with advice including: ensuring teachers and TAs have time out of class to discuss lesson preparation and feedback; using TAs to deliver high-quality one-to-one work; and breaking away from assigning TAs to specific pupils for long periods.