For too long, learning support assistants (LSAs) have been the Cinderella figures of further education - unseen forces working tirelessly but never getting enough recognition. Thankfully, this is beginning to change. But although many college principals now recognise the value of LSAs, few are doing enough to support them and this failure affects an institution's ability to deliver high standards of education.
FE has experienced a steady increase in the number of learners with complex needs, as well as more students with disabilities accessing higher-level courses. As such, we need to ensure that staff are appropriately qualified to meet these needs. The only way of doing that is to provide training, support and clear career progression for LSAs.
We recognised this requirement early at Weston College. Since 2008, we have offered a foundation degree in inclusive practice in collaboration with the University of the West of England, which allows LSAs to specialise in supporting students with, among other conditions, autism, deafness, visual impairment or mental health. We also realised that we had skilled and enthusiastic LSAs whose only natural next step was into teaching, yet this was not what many of them wanted. To address this, we created a clear progression structure. Training, support and recognition have also been addressed. Which all sounds great in theory but how does this work in practice?
Career structure is crucial
Providing progression is not just about creating routes up the career ladder but also about specialisms. On the one hand, we have roles at different levels, including the post of advanced practitioner. On the other, we provide training such as our degree programme so that LSAs can develop in particular areas and become specialist support instructors or specialist tutors.
The ability to be promoted, to earn a higher salary and to take on extra responsibility is crucial to making the LSA role a competitive one. Support staff who might previously have moved into teaching, changed career within education or switched into care services are more likely to stay put.
As for specialist training, this not only ensures that the college caters for all students' needs but is also a key factor for LSAs' engagement with the role, as they are encouraged to get involved in areas that really motivate them.
Students say that having specialists with knowledge of their particular learning difficulties has been essential in providing an appropriate level of support.
"I feel that support is very helpful, mostly with discussing the social and educational aspects of my Asperger's syndrome," one of our learners said. "My specialist support instructor brings a fresh narrative to situations when I badly need it and helps me to decide which path I should take in the future."
We have tutors, not assistants
The word "assistant" has somewhat unfortunate connotations, implying that the person is merely helping out rather than working with - or independently of - the teacher. Renaming the role "specialist support instructor" or "tutor" changes the emphasis to a far more positive one.
Also, changing LTAs' pay structure and status to match those of lecturers reflects their training and comparative worth within the organisation. Staff repeatedly say this is beneficial for their self-esteem.
Training matches ambition
We now acknowledge that staff working in this area need to be well qualified, with up-to-date knowledge and skills to meet the needs of their learners. The aim should be to provide support that helps learners understand how their disability might have an impact on their progress. Students should also be shown how they can work with specialist support staff to access a curriculum suited to their needs and aspirations.
The only way you can achieve this is through structured, relevant and ongoing professional development.
Students are part of the solution
Learners should be encouraged to work with the specialist support team and develop strategies to accommodate their differences. This process can take place informally or through timetabled discussion.
A proactive, pro-learning approach to LSAs will reap rewards in both the short and long term. Weston College would not be where it is today without the expertise and support of these members of staff. If you develop them and allow them to flourish, many benefits will surely follow.
Barbara Titmuss is an advanced practitioner at Weston College in Somerset