Outventions: When interventions turn into exclusion

Written by: Sara Alston | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Do we fall back too easily on out-of-classroom interventions for pupils who slip behind? For pupils facing multiple interventions, this leads to effective exclusion from mainstream teaching. Sara Alston discusses

When children do not make the hoped for progress, we often look for “interventions” to support them. However, we are not always clear what we mean by an intervention.

Interventions should be about providing the right support at the right time to promote learning and/or wellbeing. This can predominately be delivered through small tweaks and adaptions within good, differentiated classroom practice undertaken by the teacher, teaching assistant, or a combination within the classroom.

Yet in many schools, an “intervention” means an activity or group with an additional adult outside the classroom. We often fall back on this view of interventions because:

  • It makes the intervention and the impact easier to identify, measure and evidence.
  • If a child is going out to “a group”, then everyone – parents, child, school leaders, those involved in the SEND system – can see the child is being supported, even if this is not the most appropriate support.
  • Teaching assistant deployment is often based on “what we have always done”, including withdrawing children for a set menu of interventions even if this means that the child is fitted to the intervention rather than the intervention being matched to the child’s needs.

Many children who are struggling with learning are doing so in more than one area. This can mean that they are attending regular or multiple interventions. This can mean that these children are spending longer out of class than in it. They become separated from their teachers and their peers, lose their sense of belonging and any real understanding of what they are learning. Their learning can become disjointed and constantly interrupted as they move from group to group.

From interventions to outventions

At this point, we move from interventions to “outventions” where children are excluded from the class (I thank Ruth Swailes – @SwailesRuth – for the coining of this useful word). Their education is led by teaching assistants who effectively become their primary educators in place of the teacher.

Even when they are in the classroom, these children are often sat to the back or side of the room with an adult who is not a qualified teacher – often receiving “echo teaching”. This is based on second-hand lesson plans, programmes which the teaching assistant may only receive just before they deliver them, or instructions from the teacher which are repeated (and possibly distorted) by the teaching assistant. The child’s access to quality first teaching from a teacher can become limited.

When interventions can be effective

I am not saying there is no place for interventions outside the classroom. Short interventions that may need to take place outside the classroom include:

  • Occupational therapy, physio and other work to meet specific physical or sensory needs, although this can sometimes be included in PE lessons and movement breaks for the whole class.
  • Speech and language work, although some of this could be included in phonic sessions at primary level.
  • Specific social, emotional, mental health and wellbeing interventions, such as nurture groups, ELSA (emotional literacy support assistants) and THRIVE.
  • Very specific short time-bonded academic interventions focused on a particular learning skill. The current approach to phonics teaching, with its focus on regular group and one-to-one additional “catch-up” sessions is leading to an increasing number of these interventions outside the classroom for an increasing range of children. Their use should be considered carefully.
  • Pre-learning where children are introduced to the vocabulary, they will need to access the learning.

Very occasionally, there are children within mainstream schools with such significant SEND that they require a completely differentiated curriculum. But implementing this must be a conscious decision, not something that drifts into place through attendance at multiple interventions.

The key to successful interventions is a clear linkage between the intervention and what is being taught in the classroom. Where these become separated children are faced with two unrelated curricula and those with the most difficulties with generalising are being asked to create links between learning taught in different contexts and settings.

Education Endowment Foundation research (Sharples et al, 2021) is clear that teaching assistant-led interventions can have a very positive impact, within certain conditions. They describe the best interventions as having the following characteristics:

  • Often brief (20 to 50 minutes), occurring regularly (three to five times per week) and maintained over a sustained period (eight to 20 weeks).
  • Carefully timetabled so they are delivered consistently.
  • The teaching assistants receive extensive training from experienced trainers and/or teachers (five to 30 hours per intervention).
  • The intervention has structured supporting resources and lesson plans, with clear objectives.
  • The teaching assistants follow the plan and structure of the intervention closely.
  • Assessments are used to identify appropriate pupils, guide areas for focus, and track pupil progress.
  • Connections are made between the out-of-class learning in the intervention and the classroom learning.

The problems hampering interventions

The EEF in its Teaching and Learning Toolkit identifies a handful of interventions with a secure evidence-base which, led by teaching assistants, demonstrate a consistent impact on attainment of three to four additional months’ progress (EEF, 2021).

However, achieving this is dependent on structured settings with high-quality support and training and (above all) fidelity to the programme. But unfortunately, while these conditions are regularly aspired to, they are not always achieved.

Many schools end up using “home-grown” interventions or following commercial or “evidence-based” interventions vaguely (not strictly) which does not have the same impact.

The issues of teaching assistant preparedness, practice and deployment identified by the MITA research projects (Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants – see further information) continue to impact on staff’s ability to understand or prepare for interventions they are expected to deliver or communicate with teachers about how they link to what is happening in the classroom.

Interventions often fail because the teaching assistants do not have the training or skills to deliver what is required and class teachers do not know or understand what is happening outside the classroom.

Evaluating interventions

To know if an intervention has a positive impact, schools need entry and exit data and targets. This is easier for an intervention focused on clear academic targets but more difficult with less academically based interventions. There are further issues when children can do things in intervention groups but are not able to generalise or apply the skills in the classroom.

It is worth noting that when the EEF research reviews and related reports refer to intervention groups, it refers to them being run by teachers or teaching assistants. It is worth considering how teachers could lead an intervention while someone else covers their class. Similarly, with interventions within the classroom how might the teacher be able to work with a small group, while the teaching assistant undertakes the roving role within the class?

Further interventions may have wider impacts, both positive and negative, beyond their original focus, for example on self-esteem, focus or engagement. Children may benefit from the time and relationships developed in a smaller group. But nevertheless some may feel excluded from the whole class group and wider curriculum.

Avoiding impact on lessons

To avoid impacting on other learning, interventions often take place at “non-learning” times – lunchtime, register time, assembly, before or after school – or during “less academic” lessons, often anything that is not English/literacy or maths/numeracy.

While accepting that a withdrawal group will require a child to miss some part of the curriculum or school day, the timing of interventions can seem punitive to some children and give implicit, or even explicit, messages about the importance of the wider curriculum.

This can increase the role of interventions as an unintentional form of exclusion. This can be a particular concern, as for many children the wider curriculum is where they have a chance to shine and really enjoy learning. Also there are risks when children are withdrawn from PSHE and RSE lessons that those in the greatest need of the safeguarding messages delivered within these sessions may miss them.


There is a concern that the growth of a “no-excuses” one-size-fits-all agenda in education means that any child who cannot easily access the core teaching is effectively excluded and sent out to the care of a teaching assistant in an intervention group.

As schools we need to consider our use of interventions and ensure that they do not become exclusion or segregation masquerading as inclusion. We need to ensure all children receive their entitlement to teacher time and access to the wider curriculum as well as accessing the support they need to promote their learning.

To do this, we need to reconsider what we mean by an “intervention” – re-evaluating the interventions and support we can offer within the classroom.

Too often we disregard the importance of small tweaks and adaptions as the key interventions that make a difference to children’s ability to access learning: flexibility with seating, the use of concrete resources or ICT support, enabling oral rehearsal of ideas, etc.

The development of and support for key learning strategies are often the best and most inclusive interventions. We need to recognise and use them in schools. The SEND system needs to value them and so enable the funding and staffing required so they can enable them to be implemented effectively.

  • Sara Alston is an experienced SENCO and safeguarding lead who also works as a SEND, inclusion and safeguarding consultant and trainer. Sara’s book Working Effectively With Your Teaching Assistant will be published in February 2023. Visit www.seainclusion.co.uk, follow her on Twitter @seainclusion, or read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via https://bit.ly/htu-alston

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