Getting the best from your teaching assistants

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The role of teaching assistants in the classroom has been much debated in recent years. Jo Coates looks at the evidence and discusses the impact these vital professionals are having on attainment, including with the Pupil Premium.

“The difference I make is to children’s health, wellbeing, safety and happiness – this enables them to attain.”

So says one of 8,000 respondents to UNISON’s latest survey on TAs, carried out in the autumn last year. It adds to the mounting evidence begun by the DISS (Deployment and Impact of Support Staff) research into the impact of school support staff.

Research has highlighted a variety of good and poor practice in schools. Given the broad range of duties TAs perform, there is no simple way to define or evaluate their role. Giving examples of impact on attainment, other respondents in our survey said: “I deliver the daily speech and language for a child with verbal dyspraxia. He is just starting to talk” and “I ran a maths club and a pupil who asked for extra lessons with me achieved a C – two grades higher than predicted.”

More work needs to be done to identify good practice in terms of professional deployment and outcomes for children. From this, a strategy should be developed to deliver national standards of practice.

Existing research/good practice

Existing research includes the findings of The Effective Deployment of Teaching Assistants (EDTA) project, which was an action project following up on the DISS work. Effective practice was shown to be in place where TAs supported gifted and talented pupils, average-attaining pupils and mixed-ability groups – rather than predominantly those with SEN.

One model included a “roving TA” who brought to the attention of the teacher particular individuals who were having difficulty with a task. Once alerted, the teacher moved in to provide targeted support while the teaching assistant continued to rove.

Other successful practices include ensuring TAs and teachers are trained in the same interventions and given time to meet, and where the teaching assistant was focused on pupil understanding rather than task completion.

In one secondary school, a class-based teaching assistant was given a prominent role at the front of the classroom writing notes on the whiteboard. These notes were primarily for a pupil with dyslexia, but this practice avoided the potentially stigmatising effect of the teaching assistant sitting beside the pupil taking notes for him. It also reversed the tendency of the pupil to depend on the teaching assistant and gave him the opportunity to practise his handwriting.

In another school, the deputy head led training for TAs on suitable questioning techniques, complementing those used by class teachers, which helped the TAs focus on pupil understanding rather than task completion. 

Other studies have also shown a positive link between TAs and attainment. One looked at changes in GCSE results between 2005 and 2009 in 83 schools and found that the larger the number of TAs in a school, the stronger the relationship with improved attainment schools (Brown, J. and Harris, A, 2010).

The authors point out that “it is not just the number of TAs that make a difference to learning outcomes but their quality and the nature of their deployment”. 

In a systematic review of the literature, Alborz et al (2009) found that academic achievements by primary-aged pupils with identified difficulties in learning, typically in literacy, improved significantly following a period of targeted intervention from TAs. The importance of effective training and a clear career structure for TAs are stressed as important mechanisms in delivering benefits to pupils.

New research

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is currently funding seven really interesting projects involving TAs. For example, funding has been awarded to Greenford High School in Ealing, London, to pilot a programme aiming to improve pupils’ speaking and listening skills by training TAs to deliver targeted interventions. Meanwhile in Nottinghamshire, Switch On is testing the impact of a literacy programme for underperforming key stage 3 pupils at 15 secondary schools. 

The findings will be used to inform updates to the EEF-Sutton Trust Pupil Premium Toolkit, leading us into now looking at some specific research around TAs and the Pupil Premium.

What does Ofsted say?

Ofsted’s 2013 report on how schools are spending Pupil Premium funding found that many schools were using some of the funding to employ new TAs or extending the roles of those in post (Ofsted 2013). 

The report refers to the fact that some school leaders have noted the research into TAs and are seeking to deploy them effectively. Ofsted found TAs were effective when schools had:

  • Ensured TAs understood their role in improving achievement.

  • Trained TAs well to fulfil this role and kept training up-to-date.

  • Revised working hours to allow TAs to plan and review learning with teachers.

  • Placed TAs where data indicated they were most needed to help pupils rather than spreading them evenly among classes.

  • Deployed well to maximise their strengths with different subjects and age groups.

Several examples given of effective TAs deployment include funding being used on the training and development of TAs, enabling them to better support learning. 

For example, one school funded a small extension of teaching assistant hours, to allow time for the teaching assistant and teacher to review the day’s learning, identify gaps in pupils’ knowledge and discuss plans for the next day.

Individual training plans were also created for TAs who worked with pupils in very small groups or one-to-one, focusing on improving a very specific skill for 20 minutes each day. The school’s evaluations showed that pupils made significant gains with the skills they were working on, which they transferred well to other lessons. 

Another example in the Ofsted report concerned a large mixed secondary school with concerns about the progress of low-attaining pupils in year 7 who were not settling down well into their new environment.

The school spent some Pupil Premium funding on developing higher level TAs, enabling them to support whole classes and small groups, develop students’ literacy and numeracy skills, and provide positive and accurate feedback.

This enabled the school to create two primary-style classes, where pupils frequently practised literacy and numeracy and developed their social skills. With weekly monitoring, results showed that attendance improved, reading ages increased at a greater rate than their chronological age, and gaps between these pupils and their peers began to close.

A Pupil Premium role

Pakeman Primary School in north London won National Primary School of the Year in the Pupil Premium Awards 2013. Pakeman drastically expanded the number of one-to-one sessions by employing and developing more TAs to fulfil specific roles, running after-school booster classes twice a week, times-table club every morning, and after-school homework club once a week.

All pupils made two levels of progress in English and maths in their key stage 2 SATs in 2012 and 94 per cent of children achieved Level 4 – taking the school from below to above average nationally in the space of three years. 

For the school, attainment has not been the only barometer of the impact of the Pupil Premium. Headteacher Lynne Gavin said: “We have built stronger relationships with the parents, who realise we’re in it together, it’s been very much about partnership.”

UNISON recently made a film about the school’s TAs which can be viewed online.

In their work on the Pupil Premium, the National Education Trust stresses the importance of the skill of those delivering interventions, over and above the intervention itself.

As deputy director Marc Rowland expressed in a recent address: “While choosing an appropriate intervention to meet a pupil’s needs is important, this is not enough to ensure it is a success, even if the programme has been shown to work elsewhere.

“What is of profound importance for the success of any intervention is the quality of the delivery, and the quality of the people delivering it.” 

He gives the example of observing both a “breathtakingly good teaching assistant leading a reading recovery session” and a “maths intervention being delivered by a teacher” at the same school bringing a lump to his throat, for opposite reasons!

It is not surprising that examples of the effective use of TAs in delivering Pupil Premium interventions are inextricably linked to investment in their training. 

Training for TAs

A resourced, national framework for training and career development for TAs is something UNISON believes is worth investing in. In UNISON’s survey The Evident Value of Teaching Assistants (January 2013), when school leaders were asked how the deployment of TAs could be improved, many agreed that impact on learning goes hand-in-hand with training, to maintain a professional environment.

One said finding the right training for TAs is a “minefield”, another highlighted the need for better career progression. There are the relevant National Occupational Standards and qualifications for TAs under the Qualifications and Credit Framework, but these qualifications aren’t mandatory, and obtaining one does not necessarily equate to reflection in level of responsibility or financial recognition.

UNISON is campaigning for a resourced national framework for TAs covering pay and conditions of service, training and career progression, as well as professional standards for TAs. 

We believe such a framework would go some way in helping to ensure quality and consistency across the profession, ultimately to the benefit of children in our schools.

Further information


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