6th May 2011 at 01:00
They're meant to be there to help, but are some teaching assistants more interested in stirring than supporting? Hannah Frankel reports

For classroom teachers, the relationship with their teaching assistant is probably the most important of their professional lives. A good partnership can ease workload, reduce stress and add a new dimension to their teaching.

In everyday impact, it can far outweigh a teacher's relationship with their head, and when it goes well it can be a boon of incalculable value. But when it goes wrong, it can be horrible.

"Since day one, she has been incredibly critical and unsupportive of the way I work," says Rick Hughes*, a primary teacher in Surrey, of his higher level teaching assistant (HLTA). Mr Hughes, a newly qualified teacher, was paired with an experienced HLTA 10 years his senior and there has been friction from the start.

"She's on a constant power trip and wants to be involved in everything," says Mr Hughes. "I once put a sweatshirt on over my shirt and tie and she started quoting the school dress code at me."

In return, although the HLTA in question aspires to become a teacher, Mr Hughes says her classroom management is poor. She often goes off on a tangent, which means pupils do not complete the set task, and he says her grammar is "shocking". She also refuses to do any filing or photocopying.

"The woman is a nightmare to work with," he says. "The past few weeks have been a constant fight because I refuse to let her bully me or take over the running of my classroom. She has worn me down far more than the children have."

It is an extreme example, but seems far from unusual. Ever since teaching assistants (TAs) arrived in the classroom, there has been the potential for tension.

Originally drafted into mainstream schools to support pupils with special needs under the inclusion agenda in the 1990s, their role expanded with the workplace reforms of 2003.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the introduction of another adult into territory which teachers previously saw as their own would lead to clashes, and the scale of the influx meant these were likely to be widespread. Latest figures show almost one in four adults in school is a TA.

"There are some amazing TAs who have brilliant relationships with pupils, staff and parents," says Kate Aspin, a former primary deputy head and now senior lecturer in primary education at the University of Huddersfield. But others can be quite the opposite.

Ms Aspin recalls one who was so domineering that the class teacher dared not change the role-play area during term time. Instead, she crept in during the holidays, when she knew the TA would not be there. "She was terrified the TA would not like it being different," Ms Aspin says.

Teachers new to the profession can find working with an experienced assistant especially hard. The TA may disapprove of their teaching methods or classroom management, and if they have been in the school for some time can have better relationships with staff and pupils.

"The biggest problem can be that the trainee is intimidated by the TA's range of experience and knowledge and doesn't want to patronise them," says Ms Aspin. "This can lead to the TA feeling frustrated as they do not feel like they know what the trainee wants them to do. They often want direction but receive nothing."

Christina Stewart*, a primary NQT in London, is finding it difficult to communicate with her TA. "I have a real problem telling people a lot older than me what to do, even if it's in a nice way," she says. In the absence of any meaningful dialogue, tensions between the two are beginning to arise.

"My TA can be really interfering and disapproving of what I do," says Ms Stewart. "I can't even do a display without her saying she is going to move or improve it."

Other TAs can undermine rather than support teaching and learning. The TES online forums are awash with teachers complaining about their TAs talking over them, shouting at the pupils or disregarding their authority.

Alison Grey*, a primary teacher in Sussex, explains daily what she wants from her TA. However, the TA cannot resist doing more. "She informs parents of behaviour issues without telling me or okaying it with me," complains Ms Grey.

"She also overrides my decisions and makes changes to displays without asking me. She often comes storming over while I'm teaching on the carpet to quiz the children about whose jumper is on the floor, or something equally banal. It totally interrupts the flow."

But the role of TA can be far from straightforward, especially for those who believe they are being treated shabbily by teachers. A complaint often heard on the TES online forums is of TAs being treated as dogsbodies by teachers, capable only of the most menial tasks.

"The golden rule is you never ask anyone to do anything you will not do yourself," says Ms Aspin. Instead, she says, as in all close relationships, mutual respect and understanding is crucial.

TAs who regularly move between classrooms also have to be adaptable. Each teacher will have their own expectations about the TA's role, but not all of them communicate that effectively.

"I have found that some teachers take the attitude that it is their job to deal solely with behaviour management, but others take completely the opposite view," says Sian Richardson*, a TA at a secondary school in Blackpool. "Some see it as their role to teach and the TA to facilitate this in whatever way possible - including keeping the class quiet."

Janet Cooper, a primary TA in Sunderland, has had a similar experience. Behaviour was bad in one class, but Ms Cooper did not want to "step on the class teacher's toes" by disciplining them. As a result, no one took action and the poor behaviour went on, at least for a while.

"After a few lessons, it dawned on me that the teacher was waiting for me to deal with it," says Ms Cooper. "Without a word to me, she had decided she was there to teach and I was there for everything else. Once I understood the situation it was fine, but I do wish people would just talk to me."

Becky Newman, 39, a HLTA at Tendring Technology College in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, agrees that communication can be key in making the teacher-TA relationship work.

Ms Newman left school with a D in GCSE maths but re-took the exam alongside pupils three years ago, gaining an A*. She is now based in the maths department and leads a bottom set Year 10 class.

"To be a good assistant you need to act as an intermediary between the pupils and the teacher," she says. "You can only do that if you know what the teacher expects of you, and what the pupils like doing."

Ms Newman, who was crowned Teaching Assistant of the Year at last year's Teaching Awards, says her role varies according to which teacher she is working with. In one class, she always takes the starter; in another she and the teacher are something of a double act, with Ms Newman asking all the basic questions that the pupils may want to ask but don't.

"A lot of pupils on the CD borderline were like me at school - they are capable but they struggle with the basics," she adds. "I think teachers recognise that I am quite good at the `Mary Poppins' element of teaching - adding a spoonful of sugar to help them enjoy maths more."

But as well as issues over communication, division of tasks and personality, financial matters can sometimes be a source of tension. Unlike teachers, support staff are typically paid only for the time they spend in the classroom. Also unlike teachers, support staff have had their pay frozen for the past two years. And with the Government's decision last year to scrap the School Support Staff Negotiating Body (SSNB), which advises ministers on pay for TAs, they have lost a champion of their rights and rewards.

"It will do nothing to help boost relations between teachers and teaching assistants," says Christina McAnea, head of education at the Unison union, which represents 200,000 school support staff.

"It's well known that support staff exercise massive amounts of goodwill, staying late, putting up with low pay, lack of defined role profiles, and term-time-only wages. (We) may find ourselves recommending that support staff don't do the average of four hours per week unpaid overtime that they do now, or anything else that is voluntary."

On top of this, support-staff jobs are likely to be more vulnerable when heads are looking to save money. It was to try to recognise the hard work that support staff put in that Chris Harrison decided to pay his TAs for one hour of planning a week. Mr Harrison, head of Oulton Broad Primary in Lowestoft, Suffolk, believes TAs and teachers should "talk together, plan together and work together".

The extra money may not cover all their planning, but it is a move in the right direction.

"There is not a practising teacher alive who teaches in isolation today," he says. "The inclusion agenda would not work if it was not for the army of support staff who keep schools afloat. They are the cement that holds the whole SEN fabric together."

At Oulton Broad, all the TAs are parents of current or former pupils, and Mr Harrison believes this can help extend their role beyond the classroom.

"Support staff nurtured and grown from the community are potentially the best ambassadors a school can have," he says. "They are a key part of teaching today."

But hard evidence of the value of TAs is more equivocal. A study by London University's Institute of Education in 2009 found that pupils who receive one-to-one help from TAs made less progress than their classmates.

Peter Blatchford, professor of psychology and education at the institute, who led the research, says the routine use of TAs to work with pupils with special needs can be counter-productive. "Pupils with the most need can become separated from the teacher and the curriculum," he says.

Ms Aspin has seen this at first hand. The targeted use of TAs to support children with SEN can work fantastically well, she says, but can also cause more problems than it solves.

"Intrusive TAs who become too close to the pupil and the pupil's family can be an issue if they will not let the teacher `in'," she says. "This leads to the pupil not being fully integrated into class life."

Helen Rogers*, a trainee teacher in West Yorkshire, says she experienced this when a TA became close to a pupil with Down's Syndrome. The TA resisted any attempts to foster independence in the pupil, the exact opposite of the intended outcome.

One possible option is to incorporate staff management into teacher- training courses. The Institute of Education research found that less than a quarter of teachers had been trained to manage TAs. In addition, only a quarter of the teachers had allocated planning or feedback time with TAs. Taking the time to brief TAs before a lesson "will help maximise (assistants') huge potential to help teachers and pupils", says Professor Blatchford.

As a new teacher at a school in Hampshire, Hafiz Qarni says he found it hard to manage support staff. "I was at least half the age of most of the TAs," he says. "I had never told anyone older than me to do anything."

From his initial experience, he concluded that his support staff were stubbornly passive. But after going on a course about working in teams, run by the teaching union ATL, he realised they were just anxious not to undermine him.

"It gave me the confidence to direct people," says Mr Qarni, now at Douay Martyrs School in Hillingdon, west London. "I told them in advance what I wanted them to do, and they taught me some extremely helpful teaching methods for pupils with SEN in return."

But playing to a TA's strengths - and subsequently reaping the benefits - can only occur once a good relationship is established. But getting to that stage may involve negotiating some rather tricky obstacles beforehand.

* Names have been changed

What TAs do and don't do

- Do reduce teachers' stress levels.

- Do improve classroom discipline.

- Do help teachers feel more positive about their work.

- Do contribute to teacher job satisfaction.

- Do reduce teacher workload.

- Do not boost pupils' progress: in general, the more support pupils receive, the fewer gains they make.

Source: `The Deployment and Impact of Support Staff', Institute of Education, London, September 2009.

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