What would happen if schools across the country opened on Monday morning without teaching assistants (TAs)? In Newcastle, it would mean Year 10 pupil Kevin*, who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), would “probably get himself excluded”, says higher-level teaching assistant Karen Jackson.
“He struggles with lots of noise, especially when there are lots of people around,” she explains. “And he doesn’t have the social and communication skills to work with other children, so hates being in a classroom environment. It’s about recognising the signs that he’s getting stressed. He goes tense and rigid, and can shout and possibly try to throw something.”
Over in Bradford, it would mean Year 3 pupil David*, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, would no longer have anyone to take him to the toilet – even though he’s now independent in many other respects, including being able to take his jumper off on his own and push himself around the school, thanks to the encouragement of his TA.
And then there are the other 242,185 pupils with education health and care plans, as well as more than a million other pupils without plans who are still receiving special educational needs support, according to Department for Education figures.
“I honestly think some schools wouldn’t make it to the end of the week,” says Rob Webster, associate professor at the UCL Institute of Education. “We’ve seen it already when TAs in Derby and Durham went on strike and the local authorities had to close the schools.”
Webster, who was himself a TA for five years as an undergraduate and PhD student, has been on a mission to highlight the true potential of TAs – ever since 2009, in fact, when the government-commissioned Deployment and Impact of Support Staff project found that the more help pupils received from TAs, the less progress they made (in English, maths and science). Perhaps there’s an irony in that the research was carried out by Webster and his colleagues.
The national media had a field day with headlines such as “Teaching assistants blamed for poor results”, while the Mail Online reported that the “Army of teaching assistants faces the axe”, as the government attempted to save £4 billion per year. And the latest figures, released in the summer, show that the axe is swinging. For the first time since the government began publishing schools workforce data in the 1990s, the number of full-time TA posts has fallen – to 262,800 in 2017 from 265,600 in 2016.
Webster says the drop is the result of austerity rather than a lack of perceived value in TAs. And he’s quick to point out what the headlines didn’t say: a major finding of the research was that TAs were being deployed and prepared in the wrong ways by their schools and teachers. Issues cited by the team included a lack of training and continuing professional development, as well as wider problems with TAs not being kept “in the loop” by teachers about lesson plans, says Webster.
“If you go into a class blind, you are sitting and listening with the kids and working out ‘oh right, this is what they have to do’,” says Jenny, a level 3 TA in Newcastle (see case study, page 45). “But the younger teachers are now starting to tell us what’s going on a lot more.”
In a tough corner of Bradford, at Shirley Manor Primary Academy, teachers email their lesson plans to their TAs before every lesson, as part of a set of “non-negotiable rules”. There are also clearly defined tasks for TAs, including taking the register and dealing with low-level disruption so that a teacher can get on with delivering the lesson. In maths, TAs will sometimes carry out a differentiated starter activity for a group of pupils with different ability levels. And if they’re designated to be with a particular pupil, they won’t stick to him or her like “Velcro”, but move around the class helping others, thereby encouraging that pupil to be independent. “The biggest impact is that my team has come together and there is a clear understanding of what everyone is expected to do,” says headteacher Heather Lacey.
Shirley Manor is one of more than 100 schools taking part in Webster’s project, Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants, which provides practical guidance and resources for using TAs. He says TAs are “definitely part of the wider solution” to some of the problems facing the teaching profession, including recruitment and retention, and teacher stress. “It amazes me that there’s not a fully funded route for TAs to become teachers because if you can convince 1 per cent a year to become teachers, you can add an extra 3,500 teachers to the system.”
But not all TAs want to be teachers. And that includes Jackson, who has been told many times during her 25-year career, by teachers and heads alike, that she has great potential. “Becoming a teacher would change the role I have to the point that I wouldn’t be able to provide the same support,” she says. “My passion is working with pupils with a highly disadvantaged background and with a SEND need, and you can make such a difference and get such a reward from seeing children succeed and overcome barriers to learning.”
A few years ago, Jackson was asked by the headteacher at her secondary school in Newcastle to run a programme for Syrian refugees, two of whom are now on the books at Newcastle United Football Club. “Those children taught me about hope and resilience, and about never giving up,” she says.
‘Mistakes are part of learning’
Jackson now runs a metacognition research programme, sponsored by support-staff union Unison, in which she teaches Year 5 and 6 pupils at a local primary school to think about their thought processes.
“A lot of children fall down on listening skills and I try to get them to realise when they’re not listening,” she says.
“And I tell them that if they find something challenging, that means they’re actually learning, and I tell them their mistakes are not failures, but part of learning.”
Another Unison-backed project involving TAs is taking place at Rosendale Primary School in Dulwich, South London, where TAs have taken over delivery of some lessons. Following training and support, each of the school’s 20 TAs teach handwriting to their class for 15 minutes each morning, and the scheme is now in its second year. “It was daunting at first to stand in front of a class of 25,” says Year 2 TA Autherene Forrest.
“Even though we were allowed to use the whiteboard, I didn’t bother because I knew I’d probably mess it up – and I still don’t – but I tell the kids it doesn’t matter if they get things wrong. I tell them not to be afraid, and that we’re not asking them to write millions of As and Bs.”
TA Elizabeth Ashton says she makes the lessons as fun as possible, including by letting pupils write letters on the board. “My class all cheered when they were told they were having me,” she says.
The scheme enables children across the primary school to improve their handwriting. In addition, it frees up teachers to work with the most disadvantaged pupils, and has boosted the self-esteem of TAs and made them “equal” to teachers, both in their own eyes and those of pupils.
“Before the handwriting lessons, I can honestly say it didn’t feel equal,” says TA Rhonda Albert. “Teachers were more like ‘oh, if you go to the photocopier can you pick up this and collect this for me?’ and it wasn’t like they actually needed us in class. But the handwriting has shown that TAs have something to give here, and that’s brought a level of respect and it’s helped my confidence.”
‘Children come to us more’
Albert, who has just finished her degree in early years education – which she did part-time while working at the school – is now considering doing a PGCE, hopefully through the Schools Direct programme, while still working at Rosendale. She hopes, ultimately, that she will get a teaching job there. When she does become a teacher, she will know as much as anyone about the value of TAs.
“I think what a lot of teachers fail to realise is that children come to us more than they can possibly go to the teachers, and we get to see the ins and outs, from the beginning of the day to the end, and I don’t think that is acknowledged as much as it should be,” she says. “For one thing, I feel 100 per cent that we should be invited to parents’ evening because there is so much we can say about a child that the teachers might not have known because they’re not in the playground as much and they don’t see what we see.”
Webster believes the answer might not lie in spending lots more money, but about investing more time and effort. He says: “We’re in a really good place insofar as we’ve got some great evidence on how to best deploy TAs to improve outcomes and alleviate some of the workload burdens on teachers. So now is the time for school leaders to really engage with this and think carefully and strategically about how to maximise the contribution of their TA workforce. And the guidance materials are there to do it.”
*The names of pupils mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their identities
‘No matter how many courses you do, you’re never going to get promotion’
Primary school teaching assistant Jenny*, aged 50, is the main breadwinner in her family, on a salary of £15,000 per year. Her husband earns £12,000 from his window-cleaning business, but money is tight – especially with a son in secondary school and a daughter at university.
She says: “Even another two grand a year would be a vast improvement. It would mean not having to worry about when you get an emergency, such as the car breaking down, or not being able to afford a decent holiday. But it must be a lot harder for single parents.”
Her financial troubles are unlikely to ease due, she says, to a lack of career-progression opportunities, with no chance of becoming a higher-level teaching assistant (HLTA) at her school, which doesn’t need one and will not fund the assessment.
“Schools are taking on TAs temporarily now, if at all, and they don’t want HLTAs – they just want as much as they can get for as little as they can pay,” she says. “I’m just going to have to accept that I’m in the role I’m in, even though I feel I’ve got the potential to do a lot more.”
Jenny says the courses she’s undertaken, including teacher subject specialism training in maths, as well as massive open online courses and the Apple Teacher programme, are not being recognised by the teachers at her school, some of whom do not keep her in the loop about their lesson plans.
As such, she has to listen along with the kids to find out what the lesson is about.
“You can work your socks off and not get anywhere,” she says.
“No matter how many courses you do, you’re never going to increase your pay and you’re never going to get promotion, and your skills are never going to be used because there isn’t scope for it in the classroom.”
Pay for TAs is “far too low” – a situation that is compounded by inexplicable pay and grading differences between local authorities, says Jon Richards, head of education
at union Unison.
He adds: “Job cuts and restructurings have also made exploitation rife and, in a survey earlier this year of more than 12,000 support-staff members (most of whom were TAs), 70 per cent said they now undertake tasks that were previously done by a higher-grade colleague.”
*Name has been changed
Salaries stretched to crisis point
The Education Support Partnership, which provides mental health and wellbeing support services to education staff, says more TAs are calling its national helpline this year because they are in financial crisis. The charity has also seen an increase in TAs asking for financial help.
One, a primary school TA and single parent from London, says her life was “thrown into chaos” when she was told she owed money to the government because of an overpayment of housing benefit.
She says: “It seems I may have been overpaid after my son reached 18 and my benefit entitlements changed.
“It was incredibly scary, as I’m already on a very low income. I take home only £1,076 a month and from that I have to find £600 for rent of a two-bedroom flat, buy food and pay all essential bills. I had no idea how I could start to pay off such a huge sum on such a low income. It had felt as if I was about to break down from the huge stress.”
The woman received £500 from the charity, which has helped a total of 74 people so far this year, compared with 78 for the whole of last year.
The organisation provides grants of between £500 and £5,000, subject to conditions, as well as financial-planning advice, either face-to-face in school or over the
phone, in order to prevent problems reoccurring.
The charity’s head of policy, Richard Faulkner, says one TA had been given cash to buy a washing machine, which saved her the huge hassle of taking her three young children down to the laundrette every week.
He says: “We see a lot of issues, quite frankly – like someone who is on £13,000 a year pro rata and they’re not getting paid in the holidays, but they’re bringing up three kids in London. Do the maths!
“Yes, the government will say they got a pay rise, but it was nothing. It was miserly.”