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Tired ways of using TAs have come unstuck

At first, the phrase "Velcro kids" sounded cute. It was a term that spread between staffrooms to describe the children who appeared attached, almost literally, to a teaching assistant.

Those pupils needed extra support, usually because of learning difficulties or special educational needs. So it was reassuring to see they had a teaching assistant who could give them individual attention in spades.

Plus, leaving the two of them working together in a corner had the added bonus of taking the pressure off the teacher, who could focus their full attention on the rest of the class.

The rise of the Velcro kid was a direct result of the unprecedented increase in the number of support staff hired by schools under the past government. There are now close to as many full-time equivalent teaching assistants and support staff working in maintained schools in England as there are secondary teachers.

But in 2009, TES ran a front page story that caused upset in many schools. It reported on research that found children who had been allocated a teaching assistant were not doing better, but worse. Many staff sent in angry letters disputing the findings. Yet further research since then indicates that it was right.

Meanwhile, teachers who have taken back charge of all their pupils through programmes such as Achievement for All have seen improvements in results (see TESpro, 16 December 2011).

Fingers should not be pointed at the teaching assistants. This problem was not their fault. And, as this week's special report shows (see pages 4-7), there are ways that teachers can help them to work more effectively with pupils.

The findings should not be used as an excuse to cut support staff numbers when the real motivation is budgetary.

However, it does underline the importance of having trained, professional teachers overseeing every pupil's learning, rather than leaving all the work with the most challenging pupils to assistants. The ripping sound you can hear is the Velcro being torn off.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro

michael.shaw@tes.co.uk @mrmichaelshaw.

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