Evidence behind the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) toolkit suggests that teaching assistants (TAs) can have a positive impact on academic achievement, but it depends on how they are deployed. If they are used to provide general administrative or classroom support, there is little or no positive benefit, whereas TAs who support individual pupils or small groups can give pupils three to five months’ acceleration in progress over a year.
According to Mary Bousted of the ATL teaching union, however, all is not well in the world of TAs. She states that TAs are being used by schools with recruitment problems to fill teaching vacancies – although some of these TAs are likely to be among the 15 per cent of teachers who leave the profession before retirement to become teaching assistants. As the squeeze on school budgets increases, Dr Bousted states, the pressure on low-paid support staff to take on more challenging work grows.
In the course of my work as national pupil-premium champion, I have become particularly interested in the ways in which schools deploy TAs, since so much pupil-premium funding is spent on them. I still encounter schools that employ TAs to work with disadvantaged children and consider that they have ticked the pupil-premium box, without recourse to evidence or proper evaluation of effectiveness.
The report on the deployment and impact of support staff was particularly informative about why TAs can be ineffective. For example, a worrying proportion of the TAs who spoke to the researchers said that, when they went into a classroom, they did not know what was about to happen in the lesson.
The EEF then produced a useful report summarising seven steps to using TAs effectively.
There is good evidence that working with TAs can lead to improvements in pupils’ attitudes, and also has positive effects in terms of teacher morale and reduced stress.
The average annual cost of employing a teaching assistant, including salary and on-costs, is estimated at about £18,000. So the total spent on them nationally is in the hundreds of millions of pounds. It pays to consider how this large sum can be spent effectively.
Certainly, TAs need good training and, of equal importance, teachers need training in the effective use of TAs. More important than both of these measures, however, is that schools need to have clear policies for the effective deployment of support staff of all kinds, but especially TAs. Many schools also need to examine the way in which they evaluate the effectiveness of TAs and should take a more rigorous approach to this, estimating the added value of the TAs’ work.
Rob Webster, the leading researcher in the field, and his colleagues from the UCL Institute of Education, have produced an excellent book that summarises the findings from the above research and elsewhere. Their detailed analysis concludes that school leaders need to make a fundamental reassessment of the decisions they make about TA deployment and practice, in order to ensure that TAs add value to the role of the teacher. More than 70 schools have taken part in the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants project at the Institute of Education in London.
If the quality of the work of teaching assistants is to be improved, Webster’s conclusion is that this is the responsibility, first and foremost, of the headteacher and senior leadership team. Using the pupil premium to maximum effectiveness in a tightening financial situation should provide the incentive to ensure that every school addresses this issue.
John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. He tweets as @johndunford