Case study: Graduate teaching assistants

Written by: Tom Donohoe | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Properly trained and deployed teaching assistants can have a huge impact on pupil outcomes. Furthermore, the use of graduate teaching assistants can also support your school’s recruitment and training strategy, as Tom Donohoe explains

If you have been in education long enough, you will remember the headlines: “Teaching assistants fail to improve school results!” Or: “Hundreds of millions of pounds spent drafting teaching assistants into schools has failed to improve pupils’ performance, according to research.”

I am sure we all remember the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) research project carried out by the UCL Institute of Education that looked at which factors had a positive impact on the performance of pupils. On the face of it, it found no positive relationship between the support given by teaching assistants and the progress and attainment of the pupils they work with.

Statistics tell us that schools spend around £4 billion a year (10 per cent of the total education budget) on teaching assistants, but as a result of this research – and the subsequent media coverage – many headteachers have cut back on the number of support staff as doubts were raised about the impact of teaching assistants on learning.

I have to say that at our school we have increased the number of teaching assistants we employ over this last decade. But before I talk about what we have done with teaching assistants here at Anton Junior, I would like to briefly reference some of the major pieces of research that have taken place in recent years focusing on teaching assistant support and identify the conclusions of these.

The Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (2009)

Mentioned above, DISS was the largest study of teaching assistants and other school support staff carried out in the world. The research was named by the British Educational Research Association as one of the landmark studies to have had a significant impact on education in last 40 years.

Contrary to long-held views about teaching assistant support (i.e. more adult support for those who need it most helps them to progress), this study found that there was a negative relationship between the amount of teaching assistant support received and the progress made by pupils in mainstream primary and secondary schools.

However, when you dig deeper there are other important conclusions that should be identified. The project included a thorough analysis of systematic observations that had been part of the research and this showed that pupils’ exchanges with teachers and support staff were very different.

Interestingly, pupils were more likely to passively attend to teachers, while they engaged in far more active, sustained interaction with support staff. The research also showed that the dialogues between teachers and children and teaching assistants and children were different in another way – the interactions teaching assistants had were often more concerned with task-completion rather than being about learning. The case studies also showed that interactions between teaching assistants and pupils could be informal and personalised and this frequently had a positive impact on the engagement of pupils.

It was this research study that really kick-started the focus on how we deploy our teaching assistants, their CPD, and how we train and prepare them for their responsibilities.

Making a Statement (2013)

MAST focused on the overall support experienced by pupils with Statements of SEN in mainstream schools. The outcomes of this study were in the main quite negative about the experience of Statemented pupils. They found that pupils in mainstream schools with SEN Statements spent over a quarter of their time away from the mainstream class, the teacher and their peers compared to pupils with average attainment and that the teaching assistants had more responsibility for pupils with SEN Statements than teachers.

This being the case it wasn’t surprising that the quality of pedagogical experiences for these pupils was less appropriate and of a lower quality than for pupils in different ability groups. It wasn’t just teaching assistant provision that was criticised, the research found that teachers also had huge gaps in their knowledge and often felt unprepared to support Statemented pupils. Although the report was not hugely positive about the provision at that time, there were definitely lessons to be learned for schools going forward.

Effective Deployment of Teaching Assistants (2011)

In this research project, researchers found that creating time for teachers and teaching assistants to meet together regularly had a positive effect on the quality of teaching assistant input and helped make their roles more explicit.
It also concluded that senior leadership teams, as well as teachers, were now thinking more strategically about the role and purpose of teaching assistants and the expected outcomes for pupils, and how they could add value – this too was having a positive impact on pupil progress.

Perhaps the key message for schools was that changing the way you prepare and deploy teaching assistants is not only possible, but has significant benefits for all school staff and all pupils.

Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants (2015)

The latest research as summarised in the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit shows that when teaching assistants are used in a focused way – to deliver structured, high-quality support to small groups or individual children – pupils can make very significant progress.

The EEF commissioned evaluations of six teaching assistant-led interventions with more than 2,000 children in just under 150 schools. In all of them, teaching assistants were trained to deliver structured sessions to small groups or individual pupils.

The EEF trials have demonstrated that, when they are well-trained and used in structured settings with high-quality support and training, teaching assistants can make a noticeable positive impact on pupil learning.

According to this EEF study children struggling with reading and maths made significant progress when given as little as 30 minutes’ individual attention a week by a teaching assistant. Their study found that primary school students who received two 15-minute maths sessions a week made three months more progress over the course of a year than their classmates.

Children who were helped with their reading for 20 minutes a day for just 10 weeks made similar progress. One school involved in the project reported that the reading ages of its students leaped by as much as four years in 10 weeks.

Sir Kevan Collins, the EEF chief executive, said: “Teaching assistants have been much maligned in recent years and many schools have scaled back on their employment to cut costs. But today’s results prove that when they are used to deliver small-group interventions, they can have a great impact on pupils’ attainment.”

Anton Junior School

In our school, we employ two distinct groups of teaching assistants. First, we have a group of staff who you would probably describe as “typical” teaching assistants – people in their 40s who have had their own children and who have subsequently returned to work in a school because they enjoy working with primary aged pupils. We have half a dozen fabulous teaching assistants who fit into this category.

They are talented, creative and, importantly, are positive in attitude and outlook. They have the respect of the pupils and their colleagues, they know the school inside out. Without a doubt many things at Anton would grind to a halt without them.

The second group comprises recent graduates who have left university in the last year or two and are interested in a career in teaching. Currently we employ half a dozen of this type of teaching assistant and they recognise that a year or two as a teaching assistant will be a great experience before they embark on an Initial Teacher Training (ITT) course. As we have a SCITT at the school it means that there is a straightforward pathway for them to follow in order to attain QTS. It is this second group of teaching assistants that I would like to focus on now.

When we advertise for a new teaching assistant we stipulate in the advert that we are looking for candidates who have a degree and who are interested in training to teach. Other schools in our area have cottoned on to this idea and there are quite a number of us regularly posting these adverts. If this is not something you have ever done you may be surprised to hear that we generally get a very good response.

Why? I believe that as well as identifying that the post would give graduates a good experience to help prepare them for ITT, in addition many undergraduates have, by the end of their final year, had enough of university study and so a year in school and earning a little cash is very appealing.

In order to get the most out of our graduate teaching assistants and so they can have the most positive outcome on pupils, over the last few years we have developed a bespoke training programme that we enrol them in. This consists of 18 workshops delivered at fortnightly sessions.

An excellent teacher working on our staff developed this programme with me as part of his NPQML (National Professional Qualification for Middle Leadership) project. Over the course of the year the twilights address topics such as “What makes a great teacher”, “The importance of challenge”, “An excellent lesson – the characteristic features”, “Effective questioning” and “What does research tell us about effective teaching?”.

A pair of my teachers deliver the programme and this makes it a “win-win” as far as I am concerned, because they undoubtedly benefit from the experience also. The sessions have a very practical focus and are full of hands-on activities for the teaching assistants to take part in. The evaluations of the course are always highly positive with all participants agreeing that the sessions have a positive and practical impact on their work in the classroom.

We employ our graduate teaching assistants as normal teaching assistants during the school day in class, but we do also train them to deliver focused bespoke intervention programmes at 8am each morning for children who need a little boost.

As with the EEF research, we have found that these programmes have a significant impact on the performance of the pupils that participate in them. The children who attend two 30-minute reading sessions each week with the graduate teaching assistants, generally make at least twice the expected progress with regard to their reading age and many make much more.

We also ask some of the teaching assistants to deliver twice-weekly maths sessions to small groups of pupils who are not yet working at the age-related expected level.

The focus of these sessions is decided by the class teachers in the year group, who ask the teaching assistants to work on mathematical areas in which the children have recently struggled, or to pre-tutor the children on a particular area of maths that is coming up.

We have found that the children who attend these groups show significantly increased confidence in maths when they are back in class. As identified in the Effective Deployment of Teaching Assistants research, for this to work effectively this does mean that teachers and teaching assistants need to have a regular dialogue about these pupils.

Conclusion

I think what works for us is that we have a good balance of experienced teaching assistants and the typically younger graduate teaching assistants. One group is not better or preferable and they definitely all add value to the pupils they work with. If you are interested in seeing an outline of the teaching assistant training programme that we have developed, contact us and we will send you an overview. One final thing that I know every one of my teachers would agree with, is that life for the class teacher is significantly less stressful with a teaching assistant than without one!

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