Most schools could not function effectively without the input of teaching assistants (TAs), according to a new study.
The report, from Unison, a public sector union, found that while the employment of TAs in schools around the country was inconsistent and their roles could vary, most headteachers valued their contribution and believe they are doing vital work with pupils.
The survey of more than 200 heads and other senior school leaders, carried out last autumn, reveals that respondents believe any reduction in the number of classroom support staff would have a negative impact on pupils, particularly those with special needs, on teachers and the general running of the school.
The findings are at odds with other studies, notably the Sutton Trust’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which found that TAs have little or no impact on pupils’ achievement and, from that perspective, were an expensive burden on school budgets.
However the Unison study, The Evident Value of Teaching Assistants, found that more than half of TAs are engaged in cover supervision and about 40 per cent work on specific tasks with pupils.
Where higher level teaching assistants are used this tended to be in demanding roles, including teaching whole classes, working with special needs children, supporting families and in management roles. Leaders said they value the flexibility they offer.
For many entrants, becoming a TA was a stepping stone towards a teaching career, including for graduates, the report found. In some cases, parents who started out as TAs went on to teach.
One respondent said: “In our school at least two TAs start their degree every year. The interview process has this potential in mind.”
Another added: “Many TAs in our school have developed to become teachers, take specialist degrees and have raised aspirations in the local community – the school has become the hub for parents to develop career aspirations.”
More than 95 per cent of respondents said TAs added value to their schools, in particular contributing to the team around the child as effective mediators and advocates and by working with vulnerable pupils.
They also enhance the learning environment for all pupils by helping to deal with disruption, and freeing up the teachers to deal with students who needed more attention.
The study concluded: “The rapid rise in the employment of TAs in schools has not been a spontaneous phenomenon that can be reversed. There is no blueprint and deployment practice is something of a lottery, perpetuated by the absence of a resourced national framework, covering job profiles and guidance, pay and conditions of service; training and career progression.
“Some schools have a clear vision of how they can use TAs to best advantage and are investing in them to achieve that; others have not. All would benefit, not least TAs themselves, from resources and support from employers, the Teaching Agency and the Department for Education.
“Realising the potential of children and young people must go hand-in-hand with realising the potential of TAs.”