Protect the army of TAs

16th March 2012 at 00:00

Funny how ideas and techniques in education seem rock solid one minute and are seriously questioned the next. The use of teaching assistants (TAs), for example, seems currently up for re-evaluation.

When my headship began, TAs were simply known as "helpers". There were just two in my school. One was a nice woman who brought tea to the headteacher, plasters to children who'd had an accident and paint pots to the classrooms for art. Then she busied herself sewing play costumes or cutting up card for craft. The other woman was a problem. She carried crates containing bottles of children's milk to the classrooms. Then she collected them up again and considered her work done for the day. I constantly found her in the kitchen gossiping with the cook or in one of the cloakrooms having a crafty fag. It took much effort on my part to persuade her that there was more to the job than being a milkman.

When I left the school, every teacher had at least one TA working alongside them. They were of enormous value. Reading practice, for example, is vital for young children and with help from TAs you can organise all sorts of small group reading and writing activities.

Throughout my career, I've appointed many newly qualified teachers who seemed "born" to the job - people who had an innate instinct for what teaching is all about. Often, I could tell this within half an hour of meeting them. I feel the same way about TAs, and if you're working with a good one, it's like having a second teacher in the room.

There is currently much debate about the use of TAs with children who have special educational needs, and I can understand why. When I began my career, I had no TA in my classroom and differentiation meant finding Charlie alternative work while making sure he still felt part of the class. Nowadays, Charlie is likely to be very disruptive as well and he'll sit in the corner of the classroom, marginalised, with his personal TA - who has probably been employed to trail him all day so the teacher can actually teach the rest of the class.

When this use of TAs began, it seemed a logical idea, though what happens in practice is often different from the theory. Charlie will still play up - in fact he's likely to play up to the TA more than his teacher. He'll realise he can get his helper to do most of the work for him if he plays his cards right. And, as time goes on, he'll become increasingly alienated from the class because he isn't interacting in lessons with them.

Also, of course, the poor TA will be required to spend much of her time filling in bits of paper, recording Charlie's "P" steps, logging his progress on his personal education plan, accompanying him to the toilet in case he goes AWOL and writing new targets for him, such as attempting to sit still for two minutes. I believe it is far better to use a TA as a practical classroom resource, working with all the children and supporting the learning initiated by the teacher. Charlie may have to struggle a bit, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The last government poured TAs into schools - though mostly as a way of avoiding additional expenditure on teachers. But used wisely, and given trust, encouragement and much creative licence, a happy and motivated TA can form a partnership with a teacher that can reap enormous benefits for a class.

I'd hate to see them disappear.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:

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