We’ve got an army of TAs to deploy on the front line

20th November 2015 at 00:00
Don’t dismiss teaching assistants as ‘well-meaning parents’, use them to best advantage

Back in 2010, it wasn’t much fun being a teaching assistant (TA). This was the year that witnessed the birth of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, from the Sutton Trust and Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). The evidence being bellowed around school corridors was that TAs were useless.

Despite nearly £4.4 billion being spent by schools on support staff, and the number of TAs trebling since 2000, their impact was seemingly negligible.

What followed was a concerted attack. Scare stories abounded of armies of these essential school staff members being cut to save money because they had “no impact on student outcomes”.

Thinktanks such as Reform made the stark recommendation that schools could get value for money by increasing class sizes and, inevitably, getting rid of TAs (bit.ly/ReformMatters).

That was just the start. Blunt media headlines and selective reading of the evidence can all too often prove a toxic combination.

But what is the truth when you dig beneath the headlines? As you might expect, TAs can be used badly and have little positive impact, or they can be used expertly and prove to be of huge value to our students.

The EEF has gone a long way to repair the damage done in 2010. It has recently published an excellent guidance report, Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants (bit.ly/BestTAs), by Jonathan Sharples of the Institute for Effective Education in collaboration with Rob Webster and Professor Peter Blatchford at the UCL Institute of Education. Together, the authors outline practical principles for deploying TAs to achieve a positive impact.

Not ‘substitute teachers’

Their advice is clear and we should take heed of it to maximise a precious resource. They show that we should be wary of using TAs as a dumping ground for our high-need students to give the teacher a break.

TAs are not substitute teachers. As the evidence shows, if students are too far removed from the teacher in the classroom, their attainment can suffer. TAs add value when they support a great quality teacher in working with the children most in need, not when there is an attempt to make them take the teacher’s place.

Many schools have cleverly flipped this kind of deployment of TAs with real success, getting them to lead the class or a larger group of students so that the teacher can work intensively with the weakest pupils.

Thanks to tabloid headlines, there is a false notion that TAs do little more than help to hand out the scissors and glue, and that they are an “army of mums” with no training. In reality, in many schools they are being well trained to deliver high-quality, structured interventions.

Adding value

Successful schools are also seizing upon the unique insights of TAs, who see more of the teaching in their school – good and not-so-good – than anybody else. This helps in the sharing of best practice when it comes to CPD.

Making the role of the TA prominent and important, in the eyes of the students, parents and all teachers, is also essential. Perhaps then parents will see past headlines that might distort the facts.

As the long-awaited Teaching Assistant Standards from the Department for Education appear to have been ditched, we should set the standard ourselves and utilise the power of TAs in every one of our classrooms.

Our 230,000 TAs are an important resource and they can prove to be so much more than the clichéd depiction of them.

When we treat them as they should be treated and train them appropriately, we will reap the benefits.

Alex Quigley is director of learning and research at Huntington School in York

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