The recent Ofsted report on supporting SEND included a section pointing out that pupils with SEND regularly spend time out of the class, working with teaching assistants.
As a result, there were lots of concerns about social exclusion – some children were missing large chunks of the curriculum, and it was felt that the curriculum that they were offered didn’t have the same ambition as the one given to their peers.
There were also concerns about overreliance on one adult, and how that impacts on the development of independence.
Fair play to Ofsted for undertaking research using the kind of qualitative approach that really shines a light on the experiences of children and young people with SEND, and which are typically lost to quantitative methods. However, it has drawn the wrong conclusion from these findings.
Ofsted and SEND: Where do you draw the boundary between teacher and TA?
Ofsted has suggested that TAs need greater subject and curriculum knowledge – it says that they need robust subject-specific training if they are going to maximise their contribution.
To me, this feels like a curious direction in which to go. Maybe it’s because Ofsted sees most things through the lens of curriculum. But I wonder whether Ofsted has really thought about the consequences of what it is suggesting.
Nothing in the report indicates how much subject knowledge a TA might need. How much might they be expected to have, compared with how much a teacher needs?
Where do you draw the boundary between the teacher, as expert, and quite a low-paid TA? What would it be reasonable to expect a TA to know, given that they’re not a teacher, and they’re not paid like a teacher?
What would it mean for how TAs are deployed at secondary: how many experts would you have, in how many curriculum areas? In all of them? And would TAs then be attached to departments, rather than to individual children? This would need to be resolved, especially in relation to children with education, health and care plans, where the TA tends to follow the child.
And, if TAs are better trained in the curriculum, how do we guarantee that children with SEND aren’t going to end up spending even more time with TAs, and even less time with the teacher? We’re in danger of exacerbating the effects of the commonplace situation that Ofsted’s research has identified.
Those questions have been left hanging in the air, and they do deserve some kind of response.
Taking working with teaching assistants in a different direction
I would take working with TAs in a different direction, which relies on an entirely different sort of skillset – nothing to do with the curriculum – but which I think would be likely to have a much greater impact.
Working with children with SEND is at least as much a question of technique – how you communicate – as what you know. It doesn’t matter how much you know about a particular curriculum area if, actually, the communication is the barrier.
TAs don’t need to learn to be silos of curriculum information. Their role requires a broad set of skills, to enable them to support learning wherever learning is happening.
So, rather than training TAs in the curriculum, TAs can create the space for the teacher to come in – and for the children to receive expert input from the subject specialist.
For example, if the children are going about a task that the teacher has set, then the teacher can ask the TA to move around the room and make sure everyone is on-task. That then gives the teacher five minutes to sit down with children with SEND and give them subject-specific input.
My colleagues and I, who run the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants programme, believe there’s much more to gain from TAs supporting children to become more self-sufficient, more confident, more able to handle their own learning as they move through school.
When you talk about children with SEND, and particularly those with EHCPs, independence comes up a lot. That tends to be what parents want more than anything else: for their child to become more independent as they progress through school. Equipping TAs to give them more knowledge of the science curriculum isn’t going to achieve that.
Instead, it’s about TAs working with children in almost a moment-by-moment way, scaffolding learning. In a nutshell, it's about ensuring that they give the children the least amount of help first. If you give them very little help first, and then introduce more help if you see them struggling, that’s a more intuitive, more consistent way of helping them foster independence.
This is an inversion of what usually happens – usually, you give them the answer, or take the pen out of their hand and write it for them. And that fosters dependence.
What contribution do we want TAs to make?
Subject-specific training for TAs doesn’t remove this risk. Ofsted is in danger of reinforcing precisely this situation – the situation that they’ve already identified as problematic.
We need to ask: what is the contribution we want TAs to make? I don’t think Ofsted has satisfactorily resolved that riddle. (Though, in fairness to the regulator, that’s the Department for Education’s responsibility.)
If TAs are fostering independence, then they’re adding something of considerable value to the classroom, not overlapping or replacing the role of the teacher. It makes far better use of TAs’ time and position for them to be the staff who provide the most one-to-one and small-group support. And it gives their role and professional identity much-needed shape and definition.
There’s huge potential to be unlocked there. Just think: a third of the primary school workforce are employed as TAs. That’s capacity we could seriously do with right now. It’s an all-round win.
But it has to be a whole-school effort – it can’t just be about training TAs. Teachers need to be able to understand what the TAs can do, and how to harness those skills of scaffolding. And headteachers need to create those conditions in the classroom.
Our work with schools has shown time and again that the success or otherwise of how your TAs are deployed, and the impact it has in each school, comes down to what leaders do and don’t do.
Most, however, would surely agree that a TA workforce, re-energised and repurposed as scaffolding experts, and backed by everyone from the leadership down, is preferable to one that’s newly skilled, but still frustrated by the same old patterns of ineffective and inconsistent deployment.
Rob Webster is an associate professor at the Centre for Inclusive Education, UCL Institute of Education, and a lecturer at the University of Reading. He created the award-winning Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants programme
His two new practical handbooks for schools – Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants in Primary Schools and The TA’s Guide to Effective Interaction – are published in May. See: www.maximisingtas.co.uk