The deployment of teaching assistants in schools

A summary of research about the use and effects of teaching assistants in primary and secondary mainstream schools in England.

By Richard Fraser, Editor

The Department for Education has published research it commissioned, Deployment of Teaching Assistants in schools: Research Report, June 2019, by Amy Skipp and Vicky Hopwood, ASK Research

Summary

Background

In November 2017, there were 381,500 teaching assistants (TAs) working in state-funded schools in England. This accounted for around a quarter (28%) of the overall state-funded school workforce (DfE, 2018).  Of these:

• 72% were based in primary/nursery settings;

• 16% were based in secondary schools; and

• 12% were based in state-funded special schools, such as special schools, alternative provision (APs) and Pupil Referral Units (PRUs).

“In recent years, research has begun to examine how TAs can be deployed effectively (Sharples et al., 2015). This research has shown that TAs who are sufficiently trained and used correctly within the classroom – for example, as a supplement to teachers and not a replacement – can have a positive impact on pupil engagement and attainment.

“Wider evidence also suggests that TAs can have a positive impact on academic achievement, however, effects vary (Blatchford et al., 2009). Despite this work, there is little up-to-date evidence of how schools actually do deploy and allocate TAs, what TAs are doing inside and outside of the classroom and what is informing schools’ decision-making on how and where TAs are deployed.

“This exploratory qualitative research was commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) in order to understand more about TA deployment in schools. Specifically, the research sought to: explore models of deployment in a range of primary and secondary mainstream schools in England; understand the factors affecting TA deployment; and identify any reasons for changes in TA deployment (both historical and those planned for the future).”

The findings are based on 60 semi-structured qualitative telephone interviews with headteachers or nominated members of staff (e.g. deputy/assistant headteachers, senior leadership team members, or special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCO)) in 30 primary and 30 secondary schools in England. Interviews took place in October and November 2018.

Key findings

  • 922 TAs were reported to be employed across the 60 schools participating in this research.
  • Half of the schools employed a Higher Level Teaching Assistant (HLTAs), with 80 HLTAs in total being employed across these 30 schools.
  • A third of participating schools (19) reported that they currently had vacant TA posts.
  • 12 schools reported they were using temporary staff from an agency or ‘bank’ system.

Models of TA deployment

There were three main ways in which TAs were described by school respondents as being primarily deployed:

1. Whole-class TAs

2. In-class targeted TAs.

3. Withdrawal intervention delivery.

TA Employment

Reports of TAs contracts varied from:

  • full- or part-time;
  • for 12 months of the year or term-time only;
  • permanent or temporary; and
  • whether they were to work purely with a specifically named pupil or not.

Typically, TAs were reported as:

  • being employed for an additional 15 minutes either side of the start and end of the school day.
  • Contracts differed in terms of whether or not time was formally included for TAs to attend staff meetings, training events and to plan, prepare and liaise with teaching staff.
  • Time for planning and preparation ranged from being fitted in during the school day to giving TAs set PPA time as a formal part of their timetable.
  • Typically, TAs were expected to have GCSE or equivalent qualifications in English and Maths, though some schools had TAs qualified to degree level. Several schools reported supporting TAs moving into teacher training.

Benefits and challenges of TA deployment

Benefits of TA deployment, included:

  • providing additional support for teaching and learning to the whole class;
  • supporting classroom management and pupils with SEND;  
  • reducing teacher workload;
  • greater pupil progress and attainment, independence and adult-to-child interaction;
  • being a cost-effective staffing resource for covering absence and teachers’ planning, preparation and assessment time; and
  • providing wraparound care and outdoor learning activities.

Reported challenges to deploying TAs:

  • the practicalities of covering TA absence;
  • providing them with training and planning opportunities;
  • perceived funding constraints (in terms of ability to deploy sufficient TAs to support all children with identified needs);
  • low levels of TA pay due to limited funding;  
  • a lack of consistent training and career progression opportunities; and
  • parents may expect a TA to be employed full-time to work with their child specifically whereas, in reality, support may be provided across groups of pupils or more fluidly, or only in particular lessons.

Conclusions

Deployment

  • TAs are being deployed for a wide range of complex and interconnected functions to support teaching and learning in mainstream primary and secondary schools in England.

Across both primary and secondary phases of education TAs are being deployed to:

  • support pupils using methods and approaches adopted in school as part of whole school strategies for development and effectiveness –  such as scaffolding and providing effective feedback, and, accordingly, some TAs are expected to understand and deploy effective methods for teaching and learning in the same way as the qualified teacher;
  • support in-class and/or by delivering interventions (bespoke or bought in) – in some cases with performance targets being set for progress made;
  • withdraw pupils to safe or quiet spaces or resource bases – for extra tuition or to tackle issues arising from their special educational needs (e.g. anxiety, behaviour speech and language);
  • support pupils either across the full ability range, or to focus on low attainers and those with complex SEND;
  • take lessons – this ranges from using TAs as cover supervisors overseeing lessons planned by teachers to TAs being responsible for planning and delivering a school’s modern foreign language entitlement, literacy and numeracy lessons for low ability pupils or an alternative curriculum or qualifications; and
  • deal with pupil’s mobility, medical, health and personal care needs. In primary schools, TAs are often being allocated as an extra support in the classroom to support the full attainment range, as well as being allocated to provide specific support for pupils with SEND as well as other pupils who are eligible for funding. In secondary schools, TAs are allocated mainly on the basis of SEND needs, especially pupils with EHC plans. While this is a key determinant of how and where they are positioned in the school, it does not necessarily mean that they are only working with pupils with SEND. Several secondary schools are deploying TAs more fluidly across the ability range, as are several primary schools.

All school respondents reported that:

  • they are considering how they deploy TAs inclusively so that they are not attached to one student or adversely affect independence.

Funding

  • Many schools reported having rationalised the number of TAs they employed and had taken steps to ensure the available TA resource was being used efficiently and effectively.
  • A majority of schools reported that they need to make further changes to their TA deployment as a result of funding constraints, and expressed concerns about the impact of this.
  • A large number of schools reported that resource for pupils with SEND, including that provided for pupils under a statutory EHC plan (some via a stated number of hours), is being shared across pupils. This was particularly the case in secondary schools.

Total school funding (reported by schools to have reduced and as being insufficient to cover the required costs of their statutory obligations in EHC plans) is seen as a key barrier negatively impacting on the effective deployment of TAs, according to schools. This is because in most cases there isn’t enough to:

  • provide sufficient training – especially in whole school training and CPD;
  • allow TAs to adequately plan and prepare for lessons;
  • recompense TAs for the work they undertake and responsibilities they take on; and
  • effectively cover the needs of increasing proportions of pupils with SEND in the school – which schools report can mean deploying TAs in ways they know may not be the most effective.

School respondents reported:

  • being aware and concerned that the responsibility for appropriately supporting and progressing their most vulnerable learners was often being given to the least educationally skilled and lowest paid members of staff.

Needs and challenges

Senior staff reported there being a need for:

  • greater support funding;
  • better pay for TAs;
  • greater respect for TAs within the profession;
  • consistent professional development and nationally recognised career paths for TAs; and
  • more sharing of evidence and practice in effective deployment, and how this can be achieved with limited resources.

Schools reported:

  • having to balance a range of different issues and challenges when determining how to best employ and deploy TAs who are in many cases having to work across a range of pupils, with a range of teachers and on different and competing tasks.

More research needed

  • This research only captured the views of senior leaders. More research would be needed to capture the views of teachers and TAs themselves, and to determine if the ways schools report TA deployment is actually translating into classroom practice, whether this is effective, and how effective practice identified can be more widely shared.

 

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