Recruiting and retaining our teaching assistants

Written by: Sara Alston | Published:
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How can schools hang on to their teaching assistants? Sara Alston considers the barriers to retention and how supporting TAs’ preparation, training and professionalism will help

We know that we are in a crisis for teaching assistant recruitment. We have gone in the recent years from having more applicants for teaching assistant jobs than we knew what to do with to now having hardly any at all.

On top of this, there is a retention crisis for support staff in schools just as there is for teaching staff, with a recent survey finding that 49% are actively looking for other jobs (Parry, 2023; UNISON, 2022).

The reasons are clear.

With the cost-of-living crisis biting hard, there is now better pay with less demands to be found in many other sectors, such as retail and hospitality. Often it is sufficiently better to cover the hassles and expenses of holiday childcare.

Indeed, pay levels for support staff at the bottom end of the scale have fallen below the £10.90 UK Foundation Living Wage. And the lowest rate of pay will only be 18p behind the legal minimum wage (£10,42) from April (Headteacher Update, 2023).

There is also another key problem – a lack of respect for the teaching assistant role. It was teaching assistants who largely kept schools going for vulnerable pupils during Covid as teachers moved to teaching online. Yet the clapping (such as it happened for those in education) was for the teachers.

There is a general lack of understanding about teaching assistants’ roles. Perhaps there has always been.

This was epitomised when Kemi Badenoch, during her unsuccessful Tory party leadership attempt, described support staff as “superfluous” (although she did try to clarify this in a later interview). More recently education secretary Gillian Keegan said that the teaching assistant role was a step towards a better job.

Even in schools – though few deny the value of teaching assistants – their roles are often insecure and disrespected. Many are on short-term or fixed-term contracts. Often, they are moved between classes and roles at short notice, sometimes without consultation or explanation.

At the same time, teaching assistants are expected to take on a wide range of roles, often without training or support. Even to the extent where some find themselves as the primary educator for children with SEND – although many are not granted the SEN salary allowance of between £2,300 and £4,700 that specialist SEN teachers are entitled to.

The lack of time for liaison with teaching staff means that they are often expected to work with children without preparation or give up their own time for that preparation.

Yet teaching assistant support has become a fundamental basis of our SEN systems. Even if we do not see an Education, Health, and Care Plan (EHCP) as requiring one-to-one for a child, the system of additional provision, both in mainstream and special schools, depends on teaching assistant support.

This is specialist and important work, but in my experience the support of our most vulnerable children is increasingly being outsourced to underpaid and unqualified staff.

We are at point where the shortage of teaching assistants is threatening to derail our already broken SEN system.

Underlining this is the fundamental issue that there is no required qualification for teaching assistant or even a clear career path. While teachers work under the Teachers’ Standards, there is no official equivalent for teaching assistants.

There were proposals in 2016 for the introduction of standards, but these were never implemented due to a lack of government will. This leads to uncertainty and ambiguity about teaching assistants’ roles and levels of training, even within the same school. The proposed standards are still available for schools to use should they want to (UNISON et al, 2016).

Supporting teaching assistants

It is very difficult for schools at an individual level to change much of this to make the role more attractive or secure. The school funding crisis means that there is little we can do about pay.

However, there is work schools can do to support their teaching assistants and the teachers who work with them.

Often at the root of the disrespect for teaching assistants and their time is a lack of understanding from teachers about their roles and the expectations that can and should be placed on them.

There is an assumption in teacher training that if you can manage a class of children, you should be able to manage and work with any adult who is also in the room. The result is that teaching assistants are either treated like children or expected to act as teachers without the training.

Ever since the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project was published in 2009 (see Blatchford et al, 2012), there have been concerns about the triad of issues of teaching assistant preparedness, deployment, and practice. But there has been little consideration about the long-term impact of these on the teaching assistant themselves.

We are now reaching a point where it is urgent that they are considered and acted upon because they are undermining not only teaching assistants’ impact on learning but their ability and willingness to do the job at all.

Planning, preparation, and training

To make the role of teaching assistant more attractive, we must build in some level of preparation time. Few of us do our best work without preparation and when we do not know what we are doing, yet this is the position we put teaching assistants in day after day.

This undermines their impact and their confidence to undertake their role. At minimum, we need to ensure that teaching assistants know what it is they are being expected to teach and differentiate before they do so. In my book Working Effectively with your Teaching Assistant, I suggest three basic questions that teachers should answer for their teaching assistants before each lesson.

  • What is the learning intention? What the children are going to be learning, i.e. the focus of the lesson. This needs to include enough information to be useful, not just “addition”, but “addition with exchange using formal methods with two and three-digit numbers”.
  • What is the key vocabulary? What new, technical, or unusual vocabulary will the children need to access learning? What are the words that children may not know or remember including the key vocabulary they will need to access the learning?
  • What is the outcome? What are the children expected to produce by the end of the lesson? Consider what flexibility there is in this, so the task can be adapted to meet children’s needs and different ways of demonstrating their learning. This can enable teaching assistants to focus on the learning, not just task completion.

While this is a bare minimum, it is more than many teaching assistants currently receive. I have written previously in SecEd on joint teacher-teaching assistant lesson planning.

Equally there needs to be a way of teaching assistants feeding back their observation of the children. They will have noticed different things to the teacher. Part of making them feel valued in their role is enabling them to have a voice about the children’s learning and understand that this is valued.

Key to how teaching assistants feel about their role and the respect they are accorded is the issue of training. Training for teaching assistants is often a low priority. This means that we need to recognise, use, and formalise the training opportunities in school.

For the majority of teaching assistants the bulk of the training will be from the class teacher and within the classroom, so it is important for this to be recognised and valued. Teachers need to be supported to provide this training and it needs to be identified that it is happening and actioned when it is not. This should not be the only training teaching assistants receive, but by acknowledging and supporting it, it will become both more valued and effective.


Equally important in increasing the status of teaching assistant roles is the issue of appraisal. As there is no clear career structure for teaching assistants, there is no requirement for them to have regular appraisal or line management.

While many staff dread appraisal meetings and resent the paperwork involved, they are an overt recognition of the importance of their role.

Appraisal is a chance to make expectations explicit, recognise and share successes, as well as an opportunity to hold staff to account. Without appraisal teaching assistants miss out on formal opportunities to do this, particularly the recognition and celebration of their impact. This in turn undervalues their role and impact.

It is only by actively working to raise the status of, clarifying and valuing the many roles that teaching assistants undertake that we make this a job that people might want to do, rather than something they “fall into”.

For too long we have seen teaching assistants as a “mum’s army”. We need to recognise them as vital paraprofessionals with a key role in supporting and promoting learning in schools. This means they need training for their role, time to prepare, shared planning, the opportunity to provide feedback, and a clear career path and structure.

We have been promised changes to the role of the teaching assistant in the SEND Review. It needs to be a priority to support the education of our most vulnerable children and it can’t be done on the cheap.

  • 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, follow her on Twitter @seainclusion, or read her previous articles for SecEd via

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