Teaching assistants: The right ethos, good CPD and effective deployment

Written by: Hannah Foster | Published:
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Getting the best from your school’s teaching assistants means creating the right school ethos, proper training and effective deployment. Hannah Foster offers some practical advice and reflections

The Department for Education’s school workforce census for 2018 shows that the percentage of teaching assistants in our schools has trebled since the year 2000 and now more than a quarter of all school-based staff are teaching assistants.

One major factor in this increase is the expanded responsibilities teaching assistants now have, outlined in the government’s National Agreement in 2003.

Another major factor has been the push for greater inclusion within mainstream classrooms, increasing the employment of teaching assistants working one-to-one or with small groups. Schools are also being increasingly innovative in how they employ more support staff to deliver a range of interventions to groups of children other than SEND pupils.

Even though their remit has changed drastically and their numbers have increased, evidence suggests that teaching assistants sometimes do not have the desired impact related to their cost (Education Endowment Foundation, 2018).

However, this is not a failing in the teaching assistant workforce and the solution to this challenge, as the EEF research points out, is in how we train and deploy our teaching assistants. So what can we do to ensure we get the best out of our teaching assistants?

School ethos

The first and most fundamental element to review is how your school views the role of support staff. Your school ethos is instrumental in shaping how teaching assistants feel in their working day – staff that are happy in their work and feel valued are much more likely to give their all for the children in class.

Are your support staff seen as equals in the school workforce? Of course there is hierarchy in a school, but only in decision-making and accountability – not in the way your staff are viewed or treated.

Asking the following questions may shed some light on your school’s hidden hierarchy that could be disaffecting a quarter of your workforce. Making teaching assistants feel valued and respected can be incredibly powerful in getting the best out of your support staff.

Are teaching assistants respected by the teachers and senior leaders?

  • Are teaching assistants invited to all staff training or do you have “teacher only” events?
  • Is dedicated time given to class discussions where teaching assistants can contribute to the planning and assessment process?
  • Would your teachers give your teaching assistants the higher attaining group?
  • Is there a teaching assistant representative on your leadership team, or a senior leader nominated to gather and share the views of support staff?

Are teaching assistants respected by children?

  • Do teaching assistants as well as teachers write or give out awards in celebration assemblies?
  • Can teaching assistants give out class rewards to children achieving in class and around school?
  • Are teaching assistants responsible for following the behaviour policy’s sanctions or do they “pass” issues to the teacher?

Are teaching assistants listened to?

  • Do your teaching assistants have an opportunity to discuss their needs and concerns with the senior leadership team (either through senior leadership meetings or through a nominated representative on the leadership team)?
  • Are their opinions sought on key areas of school organisation or school policy through a systematic process?

Are teaching assistants valued?

  • Does your senior leadership team feedback to all class-based staff after observations or just to the teacher?
  • Do support staff have the chance to contribute to the school improvement plan and self-evaluation form?
  • Is the support staff performance management process as well defined as the process for teachers?

Good CPD and training

High-quality training is obviously another key driver in maximising teaching assistant effectiveness. It is the senior leadership’s responsibility to make sure that teaching assistants are fully prepared for their role. Time, money and resources need to be spread across the school workforce (not just teachers). Teaching assistant training need not be costly, there are many formal and informal options.

Informal training

Some of the best training will be achieved through the informal meetings and discussions held in your school every day.

Needless to say, schools should provide sufficient time for teachers and teaching assistants to meet out-of-class to enable the necessary lesson-planning, preparation and feedback discussions to take place. These discussions will prove vital in a teaching assistants’ understanding of the goals for each session and are an excellent way to informally increase their knowledge-base. Schools must think of creative ways of ensuring these meetings can take place, such as adjusting teaching assistants’ working hours, using assembly time and having teaching assistants join teachers for parts of PPA time.

In addition, remember that some of the best trainers and educational thinkers may already be in your building. Find time for teaching assistants to watch other teaching assistants and teachers in action across different phases and in different subjects. If you have outstanding practice somewhere, let all staff members see it.

Following educational thinkers on social media, joining forums and discussions through Facebook, and reading online educational journals are also effective options.

Formal training

The senior leadership must source high-quality physical or online training materials to up-skill teaching assistants so that they are well equipped to deal with their diverse and ever-changing roles. Maximising the Practice of Teaching Assistants (MPTA) is an example of a national course designed to help teaching assistants improve child independence. Also many local training providers and local authorities now have training packages specifically for teaching assistants. In an era where releasing staff is becoming increasingly difficult, schools could consider online training too.

Effective deployment

How teaching assistants are deployed in class is a key aspect of their efficacy in raising standards. The EEF’s evidence summary on the impact of teaching assistants (2018) suggests that schools have drifted into a situation in which they are often used as an informal instructional resource for pupils in most need. This has the detrimental effect of separating pupils from the classroom and undermining the skill-set of the teaching assistant.

School leaders must look at the roles of both teachers and teaching assistants and take a wider view of how teaching assistants can support learning and improve attainment throughout the school.

The EEF also suggests in its Making best use of teaching assistants guidance (2018) that if teaching assistants have a direct instructional role within the classroom, it is important they add value to the work of the teacher rather than replacing them.

Schools should try to organise staff so that the pupils who struggle most have as much time with the teacher as with other class-based staff. If teaching assistants spend a lot of their day with the same children, then a more strategic approach to classroom organisation is needed.
Courses such as MITA (Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants) are designed to be a strategic support for school leaders in their deployment of support staff. In addition, senior leadership must train their teachers in effective deployment, following the agreed school approach, as teachers will be the ones making deployment decisions on a daily basis.

Performance management

A strong performance management cycle with ample opportunities for self-led CPD is also essential. Your school must value its teaching assistants enough to hold performance management meetings where meaningful targets and development paths can be created.

As well as a clear structure, the key to successful performance management lies in the clear understanding that CPD is the responsibility of the teaching assistant. The role of senior leadership here is signposting, discussing and sharing high-quality resources so that staff can keep themselves abreast of educational thinking. When senior leaders and other staff show interest and follow the CPD of support staff, they are much more likely to take control of their own professional development.

Conclusion

Evidence around cost versus the impact of teaching assistants can easily be misunderstood. The issue is not with the quality of the staff themselves – it is more likely down to the ethos, training, CPD and performance management they are exposed to.

The senior leadership has a duty to create the right atmosphere conducive to effective learning, development and collaboration, making sure everyone understands and respects the role of support staff. Then leaders must acquire the best possible suite of training opportunities for their staff, all connected by a well-structured performance management cycle that everyone is dedicated to.

  • Hannah Foster was a teacher for 14 years and is now the director of Adapt Education, which works to enhance the quality of CPD for teaching assistants. Adapt has just launched Edutapp, which provides a way of delivering and tracking CPD for teaching assistants, including access to a library of training tutorials. Visit https://edutapp.co.uk/

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