The results were a shock for everyone,” remembers Rob Webster. “My wife is a teacher. She kept a low profile in the staffroom on the day it came out because it was all over the radio.”
Webster is referring to the results of the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project – a five-year study in schools in England and Wales. The report was published in 2009 and is probably well-remembered by anyone teaching then. Webster and his colleagues found a negative relationship between the amount of support that pupils received from teaching assistants (TAs) and the progress they made in English, maths and science – regardless of factors such as special educational needs and disability (SEND) status and family income.
“It turned common-sense views about TA support upside-down,” he explains. And it caused shockwaves.
“There were headlines like, ‘TAs blamed for failing pupils’. And I had people say, ‘Your research said TAs are useless and we need to get rid of them.’ I’d say, ‘No. We found this negative relationship, but we never, ever, ever said we need to get rid of TAs.’ ”
In fact, the DISS report concluded that the problem lay not with the TAs themselves but with how they were being deployed – often with little time for lesson preparation or debriefing with teachers and limited direction, but with significant responsibility for teaching students, especially those with SEND, despite not being qualified teachers. This message got lost, however, and Webster laments what he dubs “research abuse” – with the report being used to save money by slashing TAs’ jobs.
Since then, Webster has worked tirelessly to set the record straight and keep TAs out of the firing line, while trying to enable schools to act on the DISS project’s true findings. Working at the UCL Institute of Education, he leads the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) initiative, which aims to give practical guidance and resources to schools and influence policy.
He has also co-authored a book called Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants; co-written Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants, a guidance report for the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF); and developed an MITA course for school leaders, which he’s delivered to more than 100 schools.
Webster – who worked as a TA for five years – targets his guidance primarily at senior leadership teams because, he argues, “they’re the ones with the greatest power to remove barriers to good practice”.
One such barrier is the lack of time for TAs to prep lessons with teachers. “Teachers and TAs can only meet before lessons if TAs have paid time to do that, which very often isn’t the case, so it comes back to a school leadership decision,” he says.
However, those decisions don’t have to cost money, Webster stresses. “Some schools I’ve worked with do decide to spend a little bit more on giving TAs an extra hour a week with teachers,” he explains. “But it’s a modest amount that allows them to maximise the rest of the investment. In other cases, though, schools just shift TAs’ hours. So they might come in half an hour earlier to meet with the teacher before the kids arrive, and then leave half an hour earlier.”
Webster believes teachers and TAs can be proactive, too. Teachers can take direct action, he suggests, by looking at TAs’ roles in their classroom. The DISS report found that the higher the level of SEND a pupil had, the more likely they were to have more time with a TA and less with the class teacher.
“This should set alarm bells ringing,” he says. “Teachers can think carefully about how they use TAs to free them up to work with the children struggling most instead. One way is for the teacher to set up the task for the class, and then have the TA rove around, checking that everybody is on task, while the teacher sits with the children that struggle to make sure they’re able to make a start.”
A common concern for teachers is that they don’t have time for this. “I think this is based on misunderstanding,” Webster says. “Teachers see TAs working for 20 minutes with children that are falling behind and think, ‘I haven’t got 20 minutes.’ But actually, a teacher knows more about what they want children to achieve from a task. What might take a TA who’s trying to read a teacher’s mind 20 minutes might take the teacher five.”
A key thing TAs themselves can work on is having the right kind of interaction with children, he adds. “We found TAs were much more likely to drop a massive hint about an answer to a problem than teachers or, at worst, do the task for a child.”
Instead, Webster believes TAs need to encourage “task ownership”. He explains: “They should always give kids the least amount of help first. Allow them to have a go at a task and, if they’re struggling, prompt them with questions.”
Setting the right climate
Teachers can help by “setting the right climate”, Webster says. “We’ve seen TAs often give children answers because they feel external pressure to make sure the child succeeds by getting all the answers right. We need to take that pressure away. A full page of answers is meaningless if the child didn’t produce them.”
Just last month, the EEF awarded a grant to the MITA project to run a trial of their courses, involving 100 primary schools, and independently evaluate how effective they are.
“The value of this research to schools, TAs and pupils is potentially quite significant,” Webster says. “We hope to find good evidence that when schools invest time upskilling their TAs and carefully rethinking their deployment, they can make a distinctive contribution to learning in classrooms.”
There’s already evidence that TAs can have a positive impact in schools. In the DISS report, they were shown to reduce teachers’ stress and improve their job satisfaction. And other research, including previous trials funded by the EEF, has demonstrated that when they are well-trained to provide specific, evidence-based learning interventions, they can have a positive impact on children’s progress. This new trial, however, will test how much they can affect learning in whole-class settings.
Webster already believes that tapping into the potential of the TA workforce is a no-brainer. “There are over 380,000 TAs working in schools in England,” he says. “That’s more than the population of Iceland. It’s a considerable resource. Working out how best to use it is a nice problem to have.
“We’re not asking for more, we’re suggesting we make better use of what we’ve got. There’s a lot of latent potential waiting to be tapped in to.”
Jessica Powell is a freelance writer based in Melbourne @JPJourno