Putting up displays, photocopying worksheets, listening to children read. The teaching assistant used to be the auxiliary on stand by, there to make the teacher's life a happier one.
Now the teaching assistant's role is almost indecipherable from the teacher. Focused on learning, analysing data and a partner in planning, this is a professional position at the heart of the school team.
The emergence of the teaching assistant as a distinct career has been in process for a while. The potential for this army of helpers was fuelled by the National Agreement to tackle excessive teacher workload in 2003. Teaching assistants are cheap in comparison to the cost of employing a teacher and schools were employing teaching assistants as a cost-effective way of improving student outcomes.
Then came the bombshell. Teaching assistants were, apparently, not making the difference they were being credited with. The Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) research project was critical of the teaching assistant role in many schools. They were criticised for increasing dependency and reducing the amount of time the teacher spent with the pupils who needed it most. Teaching assistants were accused of being more concerned with task-completion than developing understanding and were frequently under-prepared, they claimed.
As a result of the research, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), producers of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, has added to the bank of material to support schools in developing their teaching assistants.
Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants: Guidance report (March 2015) includes a list of recommendations for how teaching assistants can best be used in everyday classroom contexts as well as in a structured intervention. The report has seven recommendations which are divided into three sections:
- Everyday classroom contexts.
- Structured interventions outside of class.
- Linking learning from work led by teachers and teaching assistants.
It is an important document to be aware of, not only as it sums up the latest research but also because inspectors have been given the document as a reference.
Every day classroom contexts
It is clear: teaching assistants should not be used as an informal teaching resource for low-attaining pupils. Instead schools should:
- Use teaching assistants to add value to what teachers do, not replace them.
- Use teaching assistants to help pupils develop independent learning skills and manage their own learning.
In order to do this, teaching assistants should be well-prepared including through training and opportunities to meet, plan and assess alongside the teacher. The EEF recommends that school leadership should take stock of their current arrangements through an audit.
Charlotte Sharman Primary School in London was complimented by Ofsted for the support that teaching assistants give pupils. They used an audit to begin the process of change.
"We were spending quite a lot of money on our teaching assistants so it was important that we were getting good value," explained headteacher, Emma Morrogh-Ryan. "Our audit included finding out from the teaching assistants themselves what they considered their role to be."
It was established that improving outcomes for pupils was their shared intention and that training and development would be central to this.
English Bicknor CE Primary School is a small school in Gloucestershire which has also been praised recently for the way in which their teaching assistants work with class teachers: "Teachers and teaching assistants know each pupil individually and there are detailed plans to ensure that activities match their abilities," headteacher Hayley Alliston told Headteacher Update.
The EEF emphasises the importance of independent learning. In order to encourage it, teaching assistants should:
- Provide the right amount of support at the right time.
- Make pupils comfortable in taking risks with their learning.
- Use open-ended questions.
- Help pupils retain responsibility for their learning.
- Give the least amount of help first to support pupils' ownership of tasks
However, teaching assistants should avoid:
- Prioritising task-completion.
- Not allowing pupils enough thinking and response time.
- "Stereo-teaching" – repeating verbatim what the teacher says.
- Over-prompting and spoon-feeding.
- High use of closed questions.
Teaching assistants should add value to what teachers do and not replace them. The EEF suggest a rotating model of responsibilities, whereby the teacher works with one group one day, the teaching assistant with another and other groups work independently. Adults' activities rotate on subsequent days meaning that all pupils receive equal amounts of time working with the teacher and teaching assistant.
Teaching assistants must be fully prepared. The EEF suggests that teaching assistants need to know in advance of the lesson:
- Concepts, facts, information being taught.
- Skills to be learned, applied, practised or extended.
- Intended learning outcomes.
- Expected or required feedback.
At English Bicknor, on a weekly basis, the teacher and teaching assistant liaise closely with each other and the teacher sends over their plans to the teaching assistant along with any links and information about resources before the week begins. The teaching assistant has just as much information about the work planned as the class teacher.
Structured interventions and linked learning
Teaching assistants have gradually become the key component in the management of interventions. The majority of schools now operate a procedure that includes assessment, pupil progress meetings and the implementation of strategies or interventions to address poor progress for individuals and groups.
At English Bicknor, the teaching assistant and teacher are involved together in the assessment and data analysis process. Previous to the pupil progress meetings, they have a week in which they collate the evidence to bring to the meeting. Their combined plan is then shared with the headteacher.
The teaching assistant is crucial to the application of interventions. However, not any old intervention will do. The EEF emphasises that it must be structured and well-supported with training. Schools are advised that their intervention programmes should:
- Include brief and regular sessions of 20 to 50 minutes, three to five times a week over a sustained period of eight to 20 weeks.
- Be accompanied by training for teaching assistants of around five to 30 hours per intervention.
- Have lesson plans with clear objectives.
- Be linked to classroom teaching .
The EEF provides advice on their website about teaching assistant-led interventions including the latest evaluation findings. Where an intervention is new or untested schools should be particularly rigorous in ensuring they monitor and evaluate the programme regularly.
High-quality training is vital. Both our case study schools involve teaching assistants in training as part of their professional development. Charlotte Sharman introduced some intensive training to bring teaching assistants up-to-speed on some key elements of the curriculum.
"When the phonics test was introduced," Ms Morrogh-Ryan explained, "we didn't do too well. We decided that all the teaching assistants must have the best quality phonics training." This involved bringing in consultants as well as training internally. Now the teaching assistants are well-equipped to focus on phonics learning every morning across the school: "They can see the impact and this has enhanced all aspects of their professionalism too."
The career teaching assistant
As more is expected of the teaching assistant so teaching assistants are expecting more in return. Ms Morrogh-Ryan has identified four rungs on her teaching assistant ladder – foundation, experienced, advanced and higher level teaching assistants. This career progression is linked to pay and teaching assistants are an integral part of the school's approach to performance management.
At English Bicknor, one teaching assistant has taken on a managerial role. As a small school, the importance of the teaching assistant as a key member of staff is, perhaps, even more acute. The school shares a SENCO with four other schools and so they are only available one afternoon a week. A teaching assistant helps to fill the gap by meeting with the SENCO every month and bringing back advice and strategies to use. Ms Alliston explained: "Our teaching assistants love having this kind of opportunity. It makes them feel more valued."
English Bicknor belongs to the West Gloucestershire Support Partnership of 37 primary schools in the Forest of Dean. They access training for their teaching assistants as part of this partnership and last year teaching assistants attended maths training offered by the group. Objectives are set for the teaching assistants as part of performance management and Ms Alliston uses the Teachers'
Standards as a reference
At Charlotte Sharman weekly training is now built into the teaching assistants' diary. They meet together for 30 minutes, share ideas, good practice and sometimes have internal training from another member of staff, such as the inclusion manager. It is not just in the core subjects but also covers other subjects, like how they can help in PE. It has opened up communication and conversations around practice in a professional way.
The direct management of the teaching assistants has now moved from the headteacher to the deputy head, Andrew May. The next stage is to look beyond the school. Charlotte Sharman is going to be hosting a foundation degree for teaching assistants run by Southwark local authority in conjunction with the University of Worcester.
Having teaching assistant involvement swells the bank of ideas and expertise available throughout a school. What started out as a move to improve the effectiveness of teaching assistants has led to a powerful lever for whole-school improvement. As Ms Morrogh-Ryan said: "Involving teaching assistants more closely has raised everyone's expectations."
- Suzanne O'Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.