From my very first days in teaching back in the 1980s, I was interested in those pupils labelled as “challenging”. Supporting them in their learning and gradually switching them on to the idea that they can be a success is hugely rewarding. I joined Future Leaders in 2012 and it was this interest in supporting the students who many give up on that inspired my Impact Initiative, which focused on increasing the effectiveness of teaching assistants (TAs).
The scrutiny of TAs has become a national issue. Research by the Sutton Trust has shown that TAs are one of the most expensive interventions, but can be one of the least effective. Further research from the Institute of Education shows that where TAs were deployed without training or used ineffectively they could actually cause students to regress. Yet this is only one side of the story, the same research also shows that “the quality and the nature of TAs’ deployment are critical components in contributing to improved student attainment”.
It is clear that well-trained and well-deployed TAs can make a real difference to students’ progress, particularly those who are most vulnerable.
In 2013, I was appointed assistant headteacher for inclusion at Nower Hill High School in Harrow. Nower Hill is a large, “outstanding” school, with nearly 2,000 students aged between 11 and 18 years.
We are proud of our school’s success, but there is always more to be done. I realised that we weren’t utilising our TAs’ full potential. We had no coherent framework for observation, meaning that we could not provide them with effective training. Additionally, TAs were often on a very different page to the teachers they were working with – the two groups had no shared vocabulary nor a shared understanding of the aims of a lesson, meaning that they often weren’t working together for the benefit of the students.
To change this, we first needed to establish a framework for observation. We already had some criteria for TAs – but these were mostly technical, involving statements such as “arrives on time” and “has a pencil case”. We needed to bring TA observation criteria into line with those of teachers. This would, we hoped, simultaneously encourage a new kind of professionalism from our TAs, as well as giving teachers and TAs a shared reference point for working together.
Over a period of drafting and consultation with the deputy in charge of teaching and learning, I redesigned the teachers’ standards to apply to TAs – both the teaching and TA frameworks would now focus on areas such as questioning, pedagogy and relationships, which are all vital for effective and reflective practice.
We trialled the new observation system from January 2014. At first, many TAs were uncertain – they worried that they would be assessed from the outset before they had a full understanding of what was expected of them. They were particularly worried about being observed in more challenging lessons, for example with long-term supply teachers. To make sure that they did not feel threatened, we decided that for the first year it was a trial and that no records would go on their files.
It was also vital to get teachers on board. I made it clear to all teachers that when observing we were not in the classroom to judge their lesson, as well as ensuring that they were made aware of when TAs in their classes would be observed ahead of time.
Students were the final piece of the jigsaw. We always explained why we were there at the beginning of an observation – this was particularly key with some of our autistic learners.
We observed every TA in the school. For the first three the school’s inclusion manager and I did joint observations and worked together on feedback in order to develop a consistent model of observation and reflection. Lessons were graded over 14 key areas which were mapped to the teachers’ standards, and were given a final overall grade. I invited TAs to let us observe them in tricky lessons in particular, to help us get a sense of the range of situations a TA may have to deal with.
The inclusion manager, who leads the TAs, said: “In previous years we were not allowed to observe TAs. As a manager I had to rely on teacher feedback. I had very little knowledge of the impact TAs were having on students and of how TAs worked for teachers in class, meaning that I found it difficult to deliver training.
“Today, it’s a different story. I have been given the power and ability to evaluate TAs effectively. I feel more comfortable having difficult conversations and feel confident in my judgements and ability to give accurate feedback. Most importantly, I feel more in tune with my TA team as I have a clearer picture of where their needs lie.”
After establishing a system for observation, we needed to create a programme to turn our insights into improvements. It was important to involve TAs in creating the framework in which they would operate, so we established a group of four experienced TAs. Together we wrote a short partnership agreement for teachers and TAs, explaining what TAs promised to do and giving teachers some guidance for how to use a TA effectively. The final outcome is now in staff planners, meaning that all TAs and teachers share a tool for professional discourse.
Next, we worked to establish an effective CPD programme. The inclusion manager and I developed bespoke training for INSET days, as well as delivering regular training every week.
Particular focuses for the CPD included how to question, professionalism and best practice. Additionally, we organised cluster meetings, made up of small groups of TAs grouped mainly by subject area and key stage. In these groups they discussed and reflected upon their work over the previous week, creating action minutes to drive improvement going forward.
I also encouraged much greater attendance at external training and development courses – for example, a group of TAs attended a national SEN event and others trained in Toe by Toe (a highly structured literacy programme).
In the summer term we organised for every TA to visit another school to gather new ideas. Following these visits, we held three mini-conferences during which each TA gave a presentation on their visit to the whole team.
The main goal was to prevent any insularity as our TAs developed their practice. This year, we plan to align the focuses of the TAs’ school visits to their improvement targets.
The feedback from TAs has been positive. One said: “The TA effectiveness programme established last year has made a huge contribution to the way we, as teaching assistants, work today. Especially within the classroom, we feel more like additional teachers than ‘assistants’ as we have been given the power to really contribute to lessons, for example by altering the way a concept is taught to make it easier to understand.”
Of course, all of these improvements in practice would be in vain if they didn’t have a positive impact on our students. While we need to wait to see whether results improve this academic year now that the system is fully in place, we have already noticed impressive progress in some students’ attainment thanks to our TAs’ improved practice.
This is particularly true for two groups; all students in our Stretch group have been improving, particularly since TAs working with them have received training on teaching young people with autism. We have also seen noticeable improvements in the science department; TAs have been able to talk to science teachers in a new way thanks to their shared observation framework and targeted CPD, meaning that they are able to provide the children with more subject-specific support.
In September, the observation process was formalised and will now form part of the appraisal cycle. As we hire new TAs, we are able to align them to our new expectations of professionalism, pedagogy and progress from the very beginning. I am also introducing peer observations among TAs to encourage further reflection on best practice.
TAs have the potential to be key interventions, but for this to be the case they must be effectively trained and deployed so that they can make a real difference to students’ progress and achievement.
Future LeadersFuture Leaders is a development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools. To apply or nominate, visit www.future-leaders.org.uk. Future Leaders is also recruiting for Talented Leaders, a programme to place exceptional leaders into headship in the areas that need them most. Visit: register.future-leaders.org.uk
Bruce Wooding is assistant headteacher for inclusion at Nower Hill High School in Harrow.