That the performance of teachers affects learning outcomes is not lost on anyone; least of all politicians. Who would question the need for rigorous initial teacher training and at least five days a year of CPD?
But what about the rest of the school workforce which has developed in response to government policy on inclusion, local freedoms and improvement?
Let us not forget that the purpose of the 2003 Workforce Agreement was to free teachers to focus intensively on teaching, liberated from 24 administrative tasks. The cover supervisor role and that of higher level teaching assistants (HLTA) were created to assist schools in meeting their legal obligation to allow teachers to have planning, preparation and assessment time and to cover for absent colleagues only rarely.
The Teacher Training Agency had become the Training and Development Agency (TDA) providing support for new staff roles. By 2005, the first 7,000 teaching assistants achieved HLTA status, initially through an assessment-only route, later extended to a tailored training route that saw the numbers rise to 30,000. Support Workers in Schools qualifications were designed and one of the last products of the TDA was a family of online training packages for support staff.
One can only look back at these as halcyon days. A TDA budget cut resulted in removal of the £10 million support staff budget and central provision began to dwindle. When the coalition took power, it seemed bemused at the role of the wider workforce in schools. In 2010, funding for HLTAs was scrapped, the School Support Staff Negotiating Body was abolished, and in 2013 the teachers’ review body was asked to consider deleting the list of tasks delegated to support staff.
The Department for Education (DfE) then alighted on research that brought the value of nearly 360,000 teaching assistants into question, suggesting that they could actually have a negative impact on some pupils. That the same research found they reduce teacher workloads and stress, improve classroom discipline, keep pupils on task, and provide necessary one-to-one help did not make headlines.
But the spanner in any works to reprofile the school workforce from the centre is the education ethos that leaves workforce planning firmly in the hands of school leaders. These have chosen to recruit teaching assistants in increasing numbers, spending much of the Pupil Premium on their deployment.
Our research suggests that headteachers value the teaching assistant role in structured and targeted interventions, support for teachers, liaision with parents, and as links with other agencies. There now seems to be widespread acceptance that teaching assistants and other support staff are here to stay and that training is vital to their effectiveness. But where are the resources to ensure that the wider workforce is equipped to play their full part?
UNISON has relaunched Skills for Schools – www.skillsforschools.org.uk – a training website open to all. It provides a hub for information on options for training and career development, and links to resources. The site hosts a library, which includes evidence and research about the role of support staff and the difference they can make.
There is a career planner which allows users to input their current role, qualifications and skills. The planner will suggest alternative roles to consider and potential qualifications to support the journey. A a new interactive guide called Coping with Care can also be accessed outlining the key points from the statutory guidance on supporting pupils with medical conditions (England).
But a website alone is not enough. If just a fraction of the millions that the DfE is spending on research to find what works was redirected into support staff training, the benefits would be evident.