Teaching assistant role must evolve or die, schools told

27th February 2015 at 00:00
Use TAs effectively or risk losing them, researchers warn

The majority of schools are failing to make the best use of teaching assistants, despite the pound;4.4 billion spent each year on employing them, according to research.

When properly deployed and trained, TAs can provide a "significant" boost to learning, says a new report from the Education Endowment Fund (EEF). But using them as substitute teachers has little impact on attainment, it finds.

The report, published today, says that support staff should be used to "supplement, rather than replace, the teacher" by overseeing one-to-one and small-group work and encouraging pupils to develop independent learning skills.

The EEF is also funding a pound;5 million campaign in West and South Yorkshire to change how TAs are used.

The number of TAs has grown exponentially since the role was expanded in 2003 in an effort to ease teachers' workload. Between 2000 and 2013, numbers trebled from 79,000 full-time equivalent posts to 243,700. The EEF estimates that nurseries and primary schools in England now have more TAs than they do teachers.

But concerns that this expansion has not improved pupil attainment have been growing since a study published in 2009 concluded that the more support pupils received from TAs over a year, the less progress they made (bit.lySupportStaffStudy).

The five-year research project, led by the Institute of Education in London, found that TAs tended to work with low-attaining pupils in a well-intentioned bid to give those pupils more adult attention. However, children often ended up being denied time with their teacher and spoon-fed answers by support staff.

Jonathan Sharples, a senior researcher at the EEF who co-authored the new guidance (which will be available at educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk), said there was little evidence that the deployment of TAs had evolved over the past six years.

"We have to break the idea of using a teaching assistant for long periods of informal support for low-attaining and often high-need pupils," he told TES. "I think most teachers intuitively recognise that. There are real signs that some schools are using TAs in a much more structured way and those schools are seeing an impact, but they are the minority."

He added that there was strong evidence that TAs working one-to-one or with small groups of pupils to give intensive support for as little as 30 minutes a week could help pupils to make an additional three to four months' progress over a year.

The EEF guidance, which is aimed at headteachers, suggests that teachers and TAs should take turns to work with different groups of pupils. TAs could also demonstrate the equipment to be used in a lesson while the teacher is talking, it adds.

But without action to ensure that TAs were used more effectively, their role could be under threat, Dr Sharples said.

"I think that the widespread use of teaching assistants could be at risk if something is not done. They can make a significant difference; the report is about unlocking their potential."

Jon Richards, national secretary for education and children's services at Unison, said that many of the public sector union's members were "pushed into roles they are not trained to do" and frequently missed out on CPD.

"There is increasing quality research that shows well-trained teaching assistants can make a positive difference," he added. "We need to share more best practice about how they are trained and deployed, as it is in no one's interest to neglect the training needs of teaching assistants."

A TA at a Manchester secondary, who did not want to be named, said the role had become more prominent in her school but some teachers were not sure how to make the best use of support staff.

"I do love this job," she added. "I thought about being a teacher, but after seeing the pressure they are under to tick boxes, I was put off a little bit. Some people do this as just a job, just for a bit of money. But I think it is more than that: it's a vocation. It's about benefiting the students involved."

`Teaching assistants don't just sit around'

Andrew Truby, headteacher of St Thomas of Canterbury School in Sheffield, says teaching assistants are used to run "pre-learning" activities before lessons at the primary.

"We have children coming in at 8.30am for extra sessions in a maths programme, which the teaching assistants have been trained to give. That has had a massive impact," he says.

"We have some special educational needs teaching assistants who work with children with complex needs. We don't have teaching assistants just sitting around watching teachers teach.

"We also have a couple of TAs who make sure every classroom is well organised and stunning, with high-quality displays, so that children's jaws drop when they walk in."


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today