Schools in disadvantaged areas more likely to rely on teaching assistants

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Schools in working disadvantaged areas have a much higher pupil-to-teaching assistant ratio than those in more affluent areas.

Spending on teaching assistants in England’s schools has more than trebled since 2002 with 15p in every pound now being spent on education support staff. Teaching assistants now make up a quarter of the school workforce – 260,000 professionals.

And an analysis from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) has found that teaching assistants are more likely to be found in schools in disadvantaged areas.

In 2019, there was a ratio of 72.5 pupils per teaching assistant across England’s secondary schools. However, schools in poorer areas have 55 pupils per teaching assistant. The figure rises to 92 pupils per teaching assistant for schools in affluent areas.

Teaching assistants are much more prevalent in primary schools, where the 2019 ratio is 26.2 pupils per teaching assistant. However, on average, more disadvantaged primary schools have 23 pupils to every teaching assistant, while more affluent primary schools have 31.

There is huge variation in spending on teaching assistants, with some secondaries spending as little as £400 per pupil and others spending around £900. For primary schools, the per-pupil spend ranges from around £600 to more than £1,200.

The report acknowledges that many schools have cut back on teaching assistants as part of cost-saving measures, but warns that this could have an impact on outcomes.

It states: “Research suggests that teaching assistants can have a positive benefit on attainment, but how they are deployed is highly relevant.

For example, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) highlights that where teaching assistants provide support to individuals or small groups they can have ‘moderate positive benefits’ on attainment, but providing general classroom support does not have a measurable impact on attainment.

“When they are used to substitute rather than supplement a teacher the outcomes can be negative, particularly for pupils with low attainment or those with SEN.”

Research from the Department for Education (Skipp & Hopwood, 2019) shows that in-class targeted support – such as for those with SEN or with EAL – is the most common use of teaching assistants in secondary schools. Other uses include intervention outside of classes, as well as personal support for pupils, and supervisory roles in after-school clubs.

Jon Andrews, deputy head of research at the EPI, said: “When teaching assistants are targeted effectively, they can positively impact pupil outcomes. So, reducing the number of support staff is not necessarily a shortcut to making savings without harming attainment. But schools will need to consider how they are being used, especially as poor deployment can have a detrimental effect, particularly on some of the most vulnerable pupils.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “We know that in the right circumstances teaching assistants can have a very positive impact on learning. Clarity about the role of teaching assistants, strong communication between teachers and teaching assistants and high=quality training are all critical factors.”

Deborah Lawson, general secretary of the union Voice, added: “We know from our own member casework that, sadly, as the analysis concludes, ‘some settings may view reducing teaching assistants as a way of achieving efficiency savings if faced with budget pressures’ – despite their key roles in supporting pupils, especially those with SEN

“Austerity-driven restructuring means skilled, dedicated and expert support staff are being lost to the system. The loss of these key staff places an additional pressure on teachers and increases their workload. The government must increase schools’ budgets so that our valuable support staff are retained and effectively deployed, not exploited.

"We are calling on the government to recognise and value teaching assistants, and commit to professional standards for them, supported by a national pay and conditions structure.”

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