Effective support staff CPD

Written by: Maria Cunningham | Published:
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Great to see the importance and relevance of CPD for school support staff highlighted. Frustration ...

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Many schools neglect CPD for pupil-facing support staff, despite the clear impact it could have on student outcomes. Maria Cunningham advises

Teaching assistants make up a quarter of the mainstream education workforce, yet a vast number of schools still struggle to account for this split when allocating time and resource to their CPD programmes for the year, particularly at a secondary level.

Not only that, but while the proportion of teachers employed in England’s schools has remained relatively steady, the proportion of full-time equivalent teaching assistants in schools has more than trebled since 2000: from 79,000 to 243,700 (Sharples, Webster & Blatchford, 2015).

That’s a lot more adults who need the highest quality of training and development in order to best support our children.

Though the name may not suggest it, at the Teacher Development Trust we run a network that supports schools and colleges across the UK to improve professional learning opportunities for all staff, regardless of role (not just teachers!) – from senior leaders to learning support assistants, boarding house tutors to midday meal supervisors. Working directly with schools has allowed us to witness first-hand the transformative impact that improving teaching assistant and pupil-facing support staff can have both on school culture and wider student outcomes.

A fantastic example of this is at Belgrave St Bartholomew’s Academy in Stoke-on-Trent, part of the Britannia Teaching School Alliance where John Collier is director of teaching and learning.

John also leads on professional development for the St Bart’s multi-academy trust working across a large group of schools in Staffordshire and Cheshire, and is a TDT expert advisor in charge of a CPD Excellence Hub. Below, he shares his experiences and offers some advice for how all schools can improve their provision.

Belgrave St Bartholomew’s Academy

“In 2011 I received a phone call at work from my daughter’s school. I was deputy head at the time and the caller was a teaching assistant, asking if I was aware that my six-year-old was very quiet in class and reluctant to join in with group conversations.

“The teaching assistant enquired if there might be a reason for this ‘out of character behaviour’. The explanation was simple – her mum was having chemotherapy as treatment for breast cancer. I apologised for not informing the school, while inwardly feeling like a bad dad. How had I not picked this up? An experienced teacher and leader who had neglected his own child!

“Once the guilt had subsided I was struck by a simple thought – why was the teaching assistant the one who had noticed and dealt with the issue? From my own experience of working alongside support staff, the joint power of teacher and teaching assistant can be extremely effective, including greater awareness of the wider needs of individual children.

“Soon after this, our academy became a Teaching School and one of the most popular CPD programmes we created was ‘Effective Classroom Support’. Since 2012 this programme has served more than 2,000 support staff working in primary, secondary and special schools across Staffordshire and Cheshire.

“For many of these professionals it was the first time they had been out of school to take part in any form of CPD. The most popular feedback comment remains the same – the opportunity to share and discuss with others will have similar roles.

“The programme is flexible and can be delivered as a four-module course, a one-day INSET or individual sessions in schools. One thing they all have in common is the chance to network. We currently have two regional networks where small primary schools come together to meet and mix. One of these networks is hosted by the feeder secondary school and has strengthened transition for children in that community.

“Content of the sessions usually starts with roles and responsibilities linked to the Professional Standards for Teaching Assistants. We also use the excellent work being done by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), particularly their Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants guidance report and supplementary resources (2015).

“The scaffolding framework to promote greater pupil independence is a tool that is welcomed by support staff working across all phases which addresses some of the issues related to teaching assistants who are ‘Velcroed’ to a group or individual.

“Further sessions address individual needs by asking support staff what they would like to cover. Popular themes have included dialogic talk and effective questioning, encouraging independence and promoting risk-taking, metacognition and self-regulation. Providing time and space for the workforce to reflect on their own practice and consider research should not be a luxury for teaching assistants, but sadly this is the case in many schools.

“A common cry I hear from secondary support staff who follow classes around is ‘we have little knowledge of the lesson beforehand’. Opportunities for teachers to share planning and the learning intention of the lesson are essential, and practical solutions for this is something that leaders need to consider.

“Another is how to truly value support staff and help them feel involved. One strategy I would recommend is ‘talent-mapping’. Spend some time exploring and celebrating the many skills and talents support staff have and then share these by creating a school talent map which signposts the strengths and areas of interest individuals have.

“To strengthen further the relationships ask teaching assistants ‘what do the best teachers do?’ and then flip it around and ask the teachers to come up with a list of what the best teaching assistants do – you’ll be amazed at some of the answers.”

Take-away tips

There’s no doubt that it can be logistically challenging to meet the developmental needs of support staff, as they are often on different contracts and hours to teaching staff. Yet the same principles of high-quality CPD apply – opportunities for teaching assistants should be focused, sustained and iterative, and support staff should be allowed sufficient time to share practice and collaborate. Below are some take-away tips for your support staff:

Grow your whole-staff culture for professional learning: It is important to strike a balance between creating a divide between teachers and teaching assistants, and making people sit through things that don’t apply to their roles. Give support staff the option to take part in training sessions that are truly relevant to their needs and look out for opportunities for teachers and teaching assistants to collaborate. Though you might invite support staff to certain INSET days or twilight, do they really feel that whole-school CPD takes their needs into account? One way to check this is to carry out an audit of CPD processes, which the Teacher Development Trust offers as part of annual network membership.

Ensure that support staff CPD is driven by, and linked to, pupil need: Support staff working directly with pupils should have just as much ownership over identifying student needs and directing their learning accordingly. Throughout any CPD activity, the individual should then consider the learners that they hope to benefit, and be given the trust to experiment with new strategies and evaluate whether it meets the expected impact. This can often be supported by collaborative processes such as Lesson Study or action research.

Engage with the theory of learning: No-one can deny the renewed drive for evidence-informed schools and for teachers that engage more deeply with research to inform their classroom practice. “Research champions” in schools can help to spread this, but ensure that it is supported among non-teaching staff too. We often see examples of teaching assistant or higher level teaching assistants using research summaries with colleagues, collaborating with higher education institutions or carrying out action research projects then sharing the findings with teachers and support staff alike.

Don’t forget to create opportunities to engage with external expertise: All staff should have access to external input and challenge, including opportunities to visit other schools, access to evidence-informed input, and the opportunity to seek out different approaches and strategies. The National Association of Professional Teaching Assistants, the Professional Standards for Teaching Assistants, subject associations, the Specialist SEND Association, and the EEF teaching assistant guidance and resources are helpful sources.

  • Maria Cunningham is network development officer for Teacher Development Trust, the national charity for effective CPD in schools and colleges. She is a former primary school teacher. Visit http://tdtrust.org/

Further information

Thanks Joanna - it has been a very welcome opportunity and a pleasure to work with this important part of the school workforce.
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Great to see the importance and relevance of CPD for school support staff highlighted. Frustration with the lack of training opportunities available is often raised by UNISON members working in schools. EEF evidence clearly shows the positive impact that effective support staff training can have on pupil learning and the ‘Effective Classroom Support’ programme in Staffordshire and Cheshire sounds fantastic.
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