One of the most frustrating aspects of teaching is that those with the greatest needs are often taught by the least qualified adult in the room. And in most schools, instead of that adult being given support and training to become better suited to the task, the issue is ignored.
The problem I am referring to is the tendency to place responsibility for students with special educational needs (SEN) and disabilities on teaching assistants. In most classrooms, TAs must make moment-by-moment pedagogical decisions, explaining and modifying the tasks set by the teacher. This high level of responsibility does not accurately reflect TAs' training, their knowledge of the subject, the time given for preparation before the lesson or, most importantly, their level of accountability for the progress of a particular student.
I say this as a TA myself. We are passionately engaged in the process of teaching and learning, and care deeply about the students we support. The majority of teachers agree that we have a positive impact on their workload and classroom discipline, as well as on the quality and amount of teaching they are able to deliver. Support staff know that education is much more than just passing exams, and we can build confidence, motivation and positive approaches to learning.
Working out what works
But despite the worthwhile impact TAs can have, the growing field of research in this area cannot be ignored - in particular, the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff project, for which researchers questioned more than 18,000 headteachers, teachers and TAs over five years. The project's 2009 report (bit.lySupportStaffStudy) highlights concerns around the practice, preparedness and deployment of TAs within schools. The researchers' striking conclusion is that the pupils who received TA support made less progress than similar pupils who received little or no TA support, even after controlling for factors such as prior attainment and SEN status.
These findings must be a catalyst for change - not to move TAs out of the classroom but to prepare them better and ensure that teachers are trained to work with them more effectively. Teacher training programmes and CPD have to be more consistent in covering how to manage and use TAs.
Teachers and TAs must work collaboratively. To achieve this, schools need to ensure that teachers include TAs in discussions about lesson plans and make tasks explicit. Teachers must be given time to share their planning prior to lessons. To facilitate this, TAs should be encouraged to attend subject department meetings - perhaps changing their working hours to allow this to happen. We must also work towards a system where TAs are subject specialists, which is essential to improving their impact on pupil learning.
Progress for all
TAs must not only care deeply about pupils but also ensure that pupils don't become dependent on their support. It is important for young people to learn self-instruction strategies and reflect on their performance. Training TAs in coaching techniques is a very effective way of helping students to develop these independent learning behaviours.
In addition, a greater focus on open-ended questioning and peer-led group work would help students to self-regulate, emphasise that being challenged is common to the bright as well as the struggling, and show that intelligence is something that can be increased through effort. TAs must assist, and more importantly trust, students to make appropriate decisions and grow into independent learners.
What I am proposing here is not to start teaching assistants on the road to becoming teachers. Rather, it acknowledges that their role needs to be respected more. Once that respect is gained, then training, support and closer collaboration will naturally follow and we will all be serving our students better.
Grace Elliott is a teaching assistant and geography teacher at Wellington College in Berkshire
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