Teaching assistants and the Pupil Premium: Setting the record straight

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New research into the role that teachings assistants have to play in delivering Pupil Premium outcomes is welcome. SecEd editor Pete Henshaw hopes that it will see an end to accusations that these vital members of the school team have no impact on student

It is great to hear that we can shortly expect an update from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) on what has become something of a controversial debate in education circles – the role of teaching assistants.

It all began with Institute of Education (IoE) research in 2012 which was jumped on by many commentators as proof that teaching assistants make no difference to students’ outcomes.

What the research actually said was that teaching assistants can make a difference but that some schools need to rethink how they use them; that too often teaching assistants were being placed in “pedagogical roles for which they had not been adequately prepared”.

Then in June came leaked reports of proposals from the Treasury to phase out all 240,000 teaching assistants. Nothing, so far, seems to have come of this, but quoted at the time was a report by right-wing think-tank Reform claiming that cutting teaching assistants and increasing class sizes was a good way to save money for schools.

For me, the final straw came with the Daily Mail’s coverage of the leak, referring as it did to the nation’s teaching assistants as a “mum’s army” – an insulting, antiquated and sexist view of what is an incredibly professionalised and diverse workforce.

It is because of this context that I have always been frustrated at the entry for teaching assistants within the EEF’s Pupil Premium Toolkit. As I am sure you know, the toolkit offers an analysis of an array of Pupil Premium interventions based on effectiveness and cost. It is a vital and brilliantly useful tool that all schools should be employing.

However, its current rating for teaching assistants is, on the face of it, quite damning. Two out of five stars with a high cost (four out of five) and a summary that says the use of teaching assistants in Pupil Premium interventions yields on average no extra progress for pupils. Ouch.

To be fair, the EEF evidence summary also makes the point that it is all about deployment – the evidence of greater impact is there, it says, when teaching assistants are given “well-defined pedagogical roles or responsibility for specific interventions”.

But the headline is king and the two-star ranking has not helped us in the fight to see teaching assistants recognised for the role that they can and do play.

As a result of all this, I was delighted when the EEF funded seven projects to study the impact of teaching assistants. And the recent EEF newsletter updates us on the work, emphasising once again that the evidence masks both “positive and negative outcomes” and that “TAs are most effective when they are given training and support in delivering specific interventions”.

Furthermore, we are told that the first of the EEF research reports is due out in January and that the toolkit will be updated to incorporate the findings (click here to see our news report on this. And for a comment article written for SecEd by UNISON, click here).

I believe the attacks that teaching assistants have come under in recent months are unfounded and many of them have been based on cherry-picked facts taken quite out of context. It is clear that teaching assistants can be effective and that they can have a positive impact. But it is also clear that there is a problem in how some schools train and deploy their teaching assistants.

I suspect that too many teaching assistant training budgets have been cut (or perhaps didn’t exist in the first place) and too many schools have put too little thought into how they use their teaching assistants.

A teaching assistant who is properly trained, and who works in partnership with teaching staff to ensure their deployment in the classroom or wider school is planned, targeted and effective with specific aims and outcomes, is clearly a powerful tool in the fight to raise standards and close the achievement gap. I for one have every confidence that the EEF-funded research will back this up and yield positive results.


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