How well deployed are your teaching assistants?

Written by: Joanna Parry | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The more that research is carried out into the link between well-deployed teaching assistants and pupil outcomes, the more we see the impact they can have, says Joanna Parry

I have never doubted the hugely positive impact that teaching assistants (TAs) make in schools, not just on pupil attainment but also in providing pastoral support and making it easier for teachers to focus on teaching.

Over the years, UNISON has collected plenty of supporting evidence for this from school leaders, parents and teachers, as well as TAs themselves. Headteachers in particular have told us that they appreciate the role of TAs in structured and targeted interventions, support for teachers, liaison with parents, as well as links with other agencies.

TAs have been even more prominent during the pandemic. We have collected hundreds of examples of how TAs have supported pupils through our “Stars in our Schools” annual celebrations. Here’s just a taster:

  • “The difference I make is to children’s health, wellbeing, safety and happiness – this enables them to attain.”
  • “I deliver the daily speech and language (intervention) for a child with verbal dyspraxia. He is just starting to talk.”
  • “I ran a maths club and a pupil who asked for extra lessons with me achieved a C – two grades higher than predicted.”

Many readers will be familiar with the Teaching and Learning Toolkit as curated by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) – a leading independent organisation that focuses on research in education.

The toolkit summarises thousands of pieces of research and presents it in a practical way to help schools make evidence-based decisions about how to improve learning outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged pupils.

Each area of intervention or practice (such as feedback, homework, or reducing class size) is summarised by its average impact on attainment, the strength of the evidence and its cost. It is updated as new findings from high-quality research become available.

However, as many TAs will know all too well, when the toolkit was first published there was little academic research that had been carried out into the impact of TAs. This resulted in the toolkit reporting that while TAs bring value to school communities, generally they did not make a significant improvement to pupils’ educational progress.

As a union for TAs with a wealth of evidence to the contrary, UNISON met with EEF and raised our concerns at this message. Noting the decimation of government funding for support staff training and development, we called for more detailed research to be done.

We welcomed the EEF’s decision to fund further research into the impact of TAs and are delighted that the toolkit has now been updated.

It now demonstrates that TAs, on average, add an additional four months’ pupil progress over the course of a year.

Furthermore, the research that focused solely on TAs who provide one-to-one or small-group targeted interventions shows an even stronger positive benefit of between four and six additional months on average.

The fact is that the more research the EEF has carried out and assessed since the toolkit was first published the more this figure has increased.

Another crucial consideration is that the overall average impact of TAs is brought down by those studies which suggest that the general deployment of TAs – rather than their use in structured interventions – does not help pupil progress.

Yet the security of this evidence is very limited due to the small number of studies included. Furthermore, it ignores the positive impact TAs have beyond pupil progress, such as by providing pastoral support and helping ease teacher workload. It is vital to note, too, that this finding is not based on any studies where a TA was assigned as SEND support for an individual pupil as part of an SEND plan.

Ultimately, the research tells us that training and development of staff is key. The most effective of the approaches considered were those interventions which involve high-quality support and training for TAs. Similar findings have been reported when it comes to the success of Pupil Premium interventions – success is not down to the intervention itself, but the quality of the delivery and the quality of the people doing the delivering.

UNISON has a website dedicated to professional development for school support staff – Skill for Schools – and we played a key role in developing the professional standards for teaching assistants which can also be found on the site (see further information).

We welcome the growing evidence-base into what works. It has been clear for many years that the way in which TAs are deployed is key to their effectiveness. However, what we now need to see is large-scale investment into support staff pay, training and development.

Unfortunately, the recent Spending Review failed to take this on board, nowhere near repairing the persistent underfunding of education we have seen since 2010.

Quality results require investment and what more important investment is there than in education? TAs are essential to “catch-up” programmes to address the disruption to learning we have seen during the pandemic. Yet just two of many comments we have received recently from TAs demonstrate gaps between provision and pay:

  • “I give 1:1 intervention maths to year 11 students below a certain level. However, there’s another 100 students in school working below grade that I can't fit in timetable.”
  • “I teach (unpaid) groups of up to 13 students on a flexible pathway programme to aid maths improvement/catch up in year 10.”

The chancellor announced an additional £1.8bn for education recovery in the Spending Review last week, but the total of £4.9bn is still three times less than the Department for Education’s former recovery tsar (and former chief executive of the EEF) Sir Kevan Collins had asked for before he quit his post in protest.

The chancellor also removed the public sector pay freeze. However, we do not yet know if any pay rises next year will be fully funded. A potential pay rise for TAs that has to be found within schools’ existing budgets will only lead to cuts being made elsewhere.

Realising the potential of our TA workforce as identified by the EEF goes hand-in-hand with investing in that workforce. UNISON will continue to make this case to the government.

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