Maximising the impact of teaching assistants

Written by: Louisa Roberts | Published:
Photo: MA Education

Charged with transforming the impact of her school's large team of teaching assistants, Louisa Roberts focused on enhancing CPD, revising appraisals, and clarifying their roles…

St John and St James CE Primary School in Edmonton is larger than the average-sized primary school with 450 pupils. It recently moved from single to two-form entry and there are now two classes in every year in the school with a nursery.

The pupils come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. Almost three quarters are of Black British, Black African or Black Caribbean heritage. Over half of all pupils in the school do not speak English as their first language. The proportion of pupils who are known to be eligible for Pupil Premium is well above average.

In September 2014, almost one in five of the pupils were supported through School Action. The proportion of pupils who received extra support through School Action Plus or a statement of SEN was average. In September 2014, the number of class teaching assistants and SEN teaching assistants outnumbered the number of class teachers.

The school had an Ofsted inspection in September 2014, moving us out of "requires improvement" to a category of "good". However, in November 2014, an audit of lesson observations revealed that in 40 per cent of lessons the use of extra adults in the classroom was less than "good".

The school needed to maximise the impact of other adults in the classroom. There was no formal performance management system in place for 80 per cent of the teaching assistants and some of them were unsure about their job descriptions, which sometimes caused tension between staff.

As a new member of the senior leadership team, I took responsibility for improving the impact of teaching assistants in the classroom and raising the profile of them as education professionals. There needed to be an effective system in place for ensuring accountability of additional staff and to develop them as necessary to improve learning experiences for all pupils.

Another objective was for teaching assistant practice to be judged as good or better in 100 per cent of lesson observations.

Task 1: Clarifying TA roles

Through research, I found out that the Institute of Education (IoE) runs a course called Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA). The MITA course enabled me to define three focus areas for improvement. These were:

  • Deployment – defining teaching assistants' role/purpose, classroom organisation, support for SEN.
  • Practice – developing a teaching and learning identity for teaching assistants, effective interactions, developing independence.
  • Preparedness – creating liaison time for teachers and teaching assistants, improving pre/post-lesson communication, training.

Following the course guidance, I disseminated staff questionnaires to gauge how effective the school was within these three areas. I also started weekly CPD sessions for teaching assistants. Within these I asked for feedback about how the school could improve the way that they felt about their role and make them feel more valued (I also asked them when deciding what to address next in our weekly sessions).

By May 2015, lesson observations showed that 100 per cent of teaching assistant practice was graded as good or outstanding compared with 60 per cent in November 2014. Much of this improvement was because of improved communication between teachers and teaching assistants through creating more opportunities for professional dialogue (e.g. during assembly), creating email addresses for teaching assistants, starting daily briefing sessions before the school day so that staff are aware of any deployment changes, and more willingness from all staff to see the value of communication to benefit pupil outcomes.

Task 2: Developing TA skills

My aim was for teaching assistant practice to be defined by a learning-led approach and this needed to be enhanced by better subject knowledge in maths and English. In April 2015, the teaching assistant team had a collective score on the 2013 Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar Levels 3-5 Test of 79.8 per cent and a collective score on the 2012 Levels 3-5 Mental Maths Test of 70.4 per cent. However, testing the teaching assistants in this way caused stress among some staff and so later assessments in June 2015 were applied informally as starter activities to the CPD sessions.

By June 2015, all teaching assistants felt confident and performed at 100 per cent in maths and grammar starters within our weekly sessions. This was because of the review and feedback teaching assistants received from their test papers, which they then responded to, and a heightened awareness of the importance of learning and maintaining core skills among staff through the tests and informal exercises in the weekly CPD sessions.

Task 3: Refining TAs' appraisals

There was no formal system in place for the appraisal of teaching assistants and so I wanted to set up an appraisal and professional development system for teaching assistants and school support workers.

Teaching assistants were given a mentor so that they had an individualised programme for their professional development and were clear about their job descriptions. They were given targets for their professional development through professional dialogue sessions with their mentor, backed up by Professional Development Plans (PDPs).

By June 2015, all teaching assistants were satisfied with their job descriptions and have agreed roles timetables for September 2015.

The impact

After achieving our goal of 100 per cent of teaching assistant practice being graded as good or outstanding, I asked the teaching assistants for their view on what has made the difference:

  • "Regular meetings have been beneficial for all as any issues/positives (we) have been able to feedback."
  • "Teaching assistants have time to meet with teachers at least weekly."
  • "There are many things in place, it is becoming a little easier to support children in class."

The teachers' deployment of teaching assistants now ensures that no teaching assistant time is wasted listening to "teacher talk" and this has been achieved through feedback to teachers about their use of adults. Overall, there is certainly a shift towards the new learning-led role for teaching assistants and this has been confirmed in the most recent staff survey. The class teachers have also been positive about the changes:

  • "Teaching assistant meetings on a Thursday morning seem to have been very positive."
  • "The strong lead that has been shown is having an impact on people's thinking and attitudes. I feel it has been a wake-up call about core purpose for some staff and other staff recognise what they haven't had. Everyone involved has learnt more from the uncomfortable moments and realised all roles are accountable."

Surveys show an interesting shift in teachers' and teaching assistants' perceptions of their impact. When teachers were asked what impact the teaching assistants' contribution has on pupils' academic progress, in November 2014, 45.5 per cent said that they had a significant positive impact. In June 2015 this figure had risen to 87.5 per cent.

Reflection and ways forward

The role of teaching assistant is now to be renamed learning support assistant (LSA). From this term, LSAs will be moving from an 8:45am-3:30pm day to a 8:30am-3:45pm day to aid preparedness and better practice.

LSAs are also being encouraged to develop specialisms, such as PE, needlework and art, creating more responsibility and richer learning experiences for pupils. Our new informal performance management system (based on PDPs) for LSAs is one step away from a formal system with the new standards for Teaching Assistants expected to be published any time now.

Convincing staff that change was needed has taken time. More time than I anticipated, but my training from the Future Leaders network about "mindset" and openly discussing the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) data on the value of teaching assistants (2013) has prompted discussions and a more considered approach to the deployment of additional staff.

The sessions during our Future Leaders training on managing change and the recommended book Leading Change (Kotter) was invaluable. A further Future Leaders day on strategic leadership has also helped me to realise the importance of putting time aside – sometimes away from the school – to avoid getting distracted by operational management.

So these experiences, some more challenging than others, have strengthened my resolve to put learning first, strengthened my belief in the Growth Mindset concept, and the importance of learning from a professional network in making positive change in school practice at all levels. 

  • Louisa Roberts is assistant headteacher (teaching and learning) at St John and St James CE Primary School in Edmonton in London.

Further information

Future Leaders is a headship development programme for teachers who want to increase their impact in challenging schools. Future Leaders is also recruiting for Talented Leaders, a programme to place exceptional school leaders in headship roles in areas that need them most. To find out more about Future Leaders or nominate a colleague you think has great potential, visit www.future-leaders.org.uk


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