Case study: Making the most of our TAs

Written by: Sal McKeown | Published:
Intervention: A teaching assistant at Horfield Primary works with a pupil on the ReadingWise intervention

Low pay and low status? Teaching assistants have been accused of have little impact on pupil attainment, but what if schools developed the role and provided better training and progression routes? Sal McKeown looks at the possibilities

Teaching assistants have found themselves in the firing line in recent years. It costs £4.3 billion a year to employ the 232,000 teaching assistants who make up approximately 26 per cent of the school workforce and according to UNISON, many school authorities have teaching assistant posts in their sights as they try to plug holes in their budgets.

Things were not helped by research a few years back suggesting that teaching assistants were having little impact and might even do more harm than good, nor by publications like the Daily Mail referring to these professionals as a “mums army”.

However, it is a different story when you talk to individual schools. Here teachers and senior leaders see their teaching assistants as a vital resource. And the clear message that has ultimately come out of the teaching assistant research debate is that it is all about the effective deployment and management of these professionals.

The Education Endowment Foundation updated its Teaching and Learning Toolkit in 2015 with the guidance document Making the Best Use of Teaching Assistants (Sharples, Webster and Blatchford, 2015), which states: “Recent research demonstrates 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.”

This report says that teaching assistants should not be used as an informal teaching resource for low-attaining pupils, but instead should help children develop independent learning skills and deliver high-quality one-to one and small group support using structured interventions.

This will require training, support for the senior leadership team and commitment on the part of the teaching assistants themselves.

Claire Morris and Sharon Remikie are higher level teaching assistants (HLTAs) at Woodmansterne Primary School in Streatham Vale, London. In the mornings they work in class supporting teachers but in the afternoon they run small groups and one-on-one speech and language sessions based on targets set by their speech and language therapist.

Their efforts were recognised recently when they were runners up in Communication Commitment School of the Year category of the 2017 Shine a Light Awards.

Rewarded: HLTAs Claire Morris and Sharon Remikie from Woodmansterne Primary were recognised at the recent Shine a Light Awards. They are pictured with host Gareth Gates


Meanwhile, at Horfield CE Primary School in Bristol, headteacher Jenny Taylor is adamant that she has many first-rate teaching assistants, many of whom are over-qualified but relish the fulfilling roles that the school offers. One was a qualified secondary languages teacher before she became a teaching assistant at Horfield. She works alongside a Spanish-speaking teaching assistant and together they have set up an after-school provision for key stage 1 which is very popular.

Two other teaching assistants have taken on responsibility for ReadingWise, a 10-week literacy intervention to improve reading, writing and spelling. They run all the groups and as well as being the experts on the software they also liaise with class teachers and the SENCO, suggesting how children might put into practice some of the strategies they have learnt from ReadingWise, or perhaps flagging up when they need to be moved from a lunchtime session to an early morning session.

“I’d always planned that teaching assistants would run ReadingWise as this would give us greater flexibility,” explained Ms Taylor. “We have sessions before school and at lunchtime and with teaching assistants we can give them time off before or after lunch as we have more flexibility with working hours.”

In fact, this model proved so successful that she is now using a similar approach with Third Space Learning, a one-to-one tuition programme for mathematics.

Not all teaching assistants seek more responsibility and some may need support and training to fulfil their current role or to take the next step in their career. The National Association of Professional Teaching Assistants (NAPTA) can help here. It describes itself as “a membership organisation that works with schools and other education settings to realise the potential of teaching assistants”.

The organisation administers an online survey for member schools where teaching assistants can review their skills and identify areas where they are confident and areas where they need support. This goes to the senior leadership team which can then prioritise training.

NAPTA has been in business since 2003 and in that time has provided support for more than 1,000 schools. Jacki Young, a HLTA at Thorntree Primary School in Middlesbrough, says that the NAPTA skills profiling proved to be an excellent tool to understand staff strengths and identify potential training needs.

“The feedback provided from the profiling acted as a springboard to initiate individual dialogues in this area. From this, staff are beginning to focus more closely on their own personal development, which has helped staff responsible for supporting teaching assistants to understand more fully where individuals wish to progress.”

They went on to use NAPTA’s development resources for internal training and have a clearer idea of what external training they will require.

Elsewhere, John Gulson Primary School in Coventry has an impressive record for finding and growing skills within their local community. According to Ofsted, it has an above average number of disadvantaged pupils, children with disabilities and a larger than normal proportion of pupils join and leave the school throughout the year. Nearly all pupils are from minority ethnic heritages and the majority speak English as an additional language.

The school encourages parents to come into the school as volunteers, helping out in classes. At first many of them feel that they do not have the confidence or skills to work with children, but they are so well supported that a number have moved on to become teaching assistants, accessing relevant training as necessary. Some of the lunch-time supervisors have also developed their skills to run breakfast clubs and after-school clubs.

With a little encouragement, some have moved on to teaching jobs too. Phil Watson, the assistant headteacher, found that advertising teaching vacancies was producing a disappointing crop of candidates but the school had well qualified teaching assistants with the necessary qualities.

The increased cost to the school for a HLTA compared to a grade 3 teaching assistant was negligible so they decided to recruit some of these teaching assistants as HLTAs.

“This enabled them to gain experience of taking whole classes and had the added bonus of cutting our supply costs because they could be used to teach whole classes for PPA cover. A win-win situation.”

The school supported one of these HLTAs to complete the Assessment Only route into teaching. This she did in 12 weeks. She is now working as an NQT at John Gulson. They have also recruited a trainee via the School Direct programme. This programme means the trainee is supported and absorbs the ethos, policies and practices of the school but also has a placement at a different school to broaden their experience. “Recruitment was a problem for us,” said Mr Watson, “but now we are doing well ‘growing our own’.”

  • Sal McKeown is a freelance education writer.

Further information

Making the Best Use of Teaching Assistants, Sharples, Webster and Blatchford, Education Endowment Foundation, 2015: http://bit.ly/2qcvLHY


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