The teaching assistants that I meet are enthusiastic, keen to improve their practice, and valued by the teachers and senior leaders that they work with. However, research on the national picture shows that they are consistently underutilised, inconsistently managed, and not always well trained and supported. This leads, unsurprisingly, to negative impacts on pupil progress (Blatchford et al., 2012). This situation has arisen as numbers of support staff and the roles they undertake has grown in an ad hoc manner, without any thought or planning at a national level. Although the Higher Level Teaching Assistant role was introduced as a ‘minimum standards’ status, this applied to a minimal proportion of the workforce as a whole. No definition of the term teaching assistant or description of what they should (and shouldn’t) do has ever been agreed. The DfE have yet to publish the draft professional standards for TAs that Nicky Morgan commissioned from an expert panel of practitioners back in October 2014.
Where does the responsibility for outcomes lie?
Teaching assistants now carry out a wide range of duties, some pedagogical, some not. However, it is often unclear exactly what is and isn’t in their remit. Lack of a clear role description is the norm for many TAs. This makes it difficult for them. It also makes it difficult for the teachers managing them – what can they be asked to do? What shouldn’t they be asked to do? Where does the responsibility for outcomes lie?
When we talk about TAs having a pedagogical role we encounter a much deeper problem – there has never been a theory of what teaching assistants should be doing when they are working directly with pupils. Should they be doing the same as a teacher does? (if they should, why is a teacher not doing the job?) Or should they be doing something else? ‘Helping’? ‘Supporting?’ Neither of these activities helps us to clarify what their role should be while a pupil or group of pupils is working. What exactly does ‘helping’ look like? It is suggested that scaffolding is the best theory we have to describe what TAs should be doing when they work with pupils (Radford et. al., 2015) and there are very practical ways that TAs, teachers, and senior managers can work together using this as a shared understanding of the pedagogical role (Bosanquet et. al., 2016).
How, though, do we ensure that all TAs have clear roles, understand their pedagogical role, and have access to ongoing training and support? Although not a popular view in the current climate of decentralisation and school led training, I would suggest that this is one area in which we need nationally agreed role titles and descriptions, and a minimum agreed training entitlement which is clearly linked to these role descriptions. Releasing the promised TA standards would be a welcome step in this direction. This would also support initial teacher training providers in knowing exactly what should be covered within their programmes when ensuring that trainee teachers know how to plan and work with the TAs effectively.
Some headway has been made by individual schools and groups of schools. For example, by following the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) programme (Webster et al., 2016) and utilising the Education Endowment Foundation guidance (Sharples et al., 2015). Our recent book ‘The teaching assistant’s guide to effective interaction’ addresses classroom practice from the bottom up, focusing on an area where immediate impact can be made – the way TAs talk with pupils. However, we need to remember that evidence shows that the current practice is for TAs to routinely work with those who are at risk in the education system (particularly those with special educational needs and those who are falling behind). This, coupled with what we know about how poorly they are deployed, managed and trained makes this an issue of immediate and national importance. To address what is essentially an issue of educational equality, education professionals, researchers and government need to come together to ensure that all children are taught and supported by a well-trained and supported work force.
Blatchford, P., Russell, A. and Webster, R. (2012) Reassessing the impact of teaching assistants: How research challenges practice and policy, Oxon: Routledge.
Bosanquet, P., Radford, J. and Webster, R. (2016) A teaching assistant’s guide to effective interaction: How to maximise your impact. Oxon: Routledge
Radford, J., Bosanquet, P., Webster, R. and Blatchford, P. (2015) ‘Scaffolding learning for independence: Clarifying teacher and teaching assistant roles for children with special educational needs’. Learning and Instruction. 36. pp. 1-10
Sharples, J., Webster, R. and Blatchford, P. (2015) Making best use of teaching assistants. Guidance report – March 2015. London: Education Endowment Fund. Available online at: http://maximisingtas.co.uk/eef-guidance.php
Webster, R., Russell, A. and Blatchford, P. (2016) Maximising the impact of teaching assistants: Guidance for school leaders and teachers, Second Edition. Oxon: Routledge