When academe and politics collide, beware cherry-picked “facts” and catchy one-liners that unfortunately tend to stick in the collective consciousness.
So it has been with recent research findings (including the Sutton Trust’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit) on teaching assistants (TAs) and some of the reporting of them, which has latched on to the idea that they make little difference to pupil progress. As a union for TAs, we are bound to be a bit cheesed off, especially when some heads have quoted the findings in redundancy notices.
Partiality aside, if TAs are not worth the paper children write on, then why are schools in England employing so many (nearly 220,000 in 2011) and spending much of the Pupil Premium on them?
A survey of school leaders seemed to be an obvious avenue for investigating this paradox. Of the 210 responses, just under 65 per cent were from heads with others from business managers and senior leaders. Open questions were asked so that respondents would be free to comment and many did, at length and passionately.
More than 95 per cent said that TAs add-value to learning and many waxed lyrical about their indispensability. It is clear that generalisations about TAs do not reflect the myriad ways in which they are put to work in schools.
They perform a complex mix of pastoral, pedagogic and administrative duties and our findings suggest that special schools are particularly reliant on TA umbrella services, while all schools are dependent on them to support mainstreaming and inclusion.
Teaching is a regulated profession, with national pay and conditions of service that leave school leaders very little wriggle-room in how they are deployed. There are no such regulations for TAs, so they can be whatever schools want them to be. The survey suggests that more than half of TAs are covering classes and over 40 per cent are delivering specified work, i.e. teaching.
Most leaders use higher level teaching assistants (HLTAs) who often manage and train the other TAs, and offer flexibility that they value. One respondent said they employ five HLTAs (two in inclusion, one focused on wellbeing and who is the headteacher’s PA, another supporting languages, and the fifth specialising in literacy and running the library).
Reported barriers to effective deployment were primarily lack of funding, training and development deficits, general management issues around relationships with teachers and job demands, and poor pay and conditions of service.
One leader said that their authority was not paying TAs in the holidays, had cut pay and no longer paid the first two days of sick leave. In these circumstances, the leader felt less able to hold TAs accountable for good standards.
The rapid rise of TAs in schools and the expansion of their roles are the result of education policy and regulations; primarily remodelling of the workforce and inclusion. UNISON welcomed these opportunities, but with safeguards to avoid the exploitation of support staff and to protect teaching standards.
The lack of consistent TA deployment practice is aggravated by the absence of a national framework covering job profiles linked to training and qualifications, pay and conditions of service. Some schools have a clear vision of how they should deploy TAs to best pupil advantage, while others would welcome guidance.
There must be an awakening to the fact that realising the potential of pupils goes hand-in-hand with realising the potential of TAs. They are here to stay and government should plan how to make the best of them.