Nearly 240,000 teaching assistants stand to lose their jobs if the Treasury is able to push through a plan to save £4 billion a year.
Treasury officials have been holding talks with the Department for Education (DfE) over the possibility of removing the posts over a period of time and using the money to boost teachers’ pay and employ more teachers instead. It would also lead to savings in the DfE’s budget.
Treasury officials would like the roles to be phased-out through retirements and with staff not being replaced if they leave. Some teaching assistants might choose to retrain as teachers.
Classroom or teaching assistants were introduced under the last government to allow teachers to focus more of their time on teaching and learning.
They are often employed to work with children on a one-to-one basis, and their number has nearly tripled since 2000 from 79,000 to around 232,000. They earn an average of about £17,000 a year.
The debate over the value of teaching assistants has been in the headlines recently after evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation and the Institute of Education questioned their impact in the classroom.
A study by Reform, a right-of-centre think tank, has also recently claimed that schools could improve value for money by cutting the number of teaching assistants and increasing class sizes.
Thomas Cawston, its research director, said there was evidence “that questioned the value for money of teaching assistants and demonstrated that their impact on educational outcomes for pupils was negligible”.
“We found that while they were supposed to help teachers, they were actually being allowed to take classes themselves,” he said. “Not being prepared or qualified to do those classes, they were not doing a very good job.”
However, Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, writing in this week’s SecEd, said that “as is so often the case, evidence has been drawn on selectively”.
He writes: “Yes, poorly deployed teaching assistants will do nothing to raise standards. But properly trained and well-used ones will.
“The idea that a government that has preached autonomy for schools, and that has absolutely no power to tell schools whom they can legally employ, could contemplate such a decision is plainly outrageous. Nevertheless, they can of course reduce budgets, forcing unpalatable decisions about which frontline services schools might cut.”
Jon Richards UNISON’s national secretary for education, said a recent survey of headteachers found that 95 per cent believed teaching assistants added value to pupils’ learning.
He explained: “Teaching assistants have been vital to improving the education of our children in schools. Taking them out of classrooms would be a lose-lose situation for pupils. Those with special needs will fall behind, and teachers will not have as much time for the rest of the class.
“It is unfair and wrong to criticise teaching assistants for not taking classes as professionally as teachers. They are not teachers and are not supposed to be taking classes on a regular basis.”
He added that as the overwhelming majority of teaching assistants were female, women were once again being hardest hit by the recession.
• Read Brian Lightman’s article for SecEd in full.