The true value of teaching assistants

Written by: HTU | Published:

Professor Peter Blatchford, Dr Anthony Russell and Rob Webster – researchers on the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff in Schools (DISS) project – discuss their work into the impact TAs have on pupil outcomes and teacher workloads

A recent international survey by Giangreco and Doyle (2007) reports a general increase in teaching assistants (TAs) employed in mainstream schools in many countries. But such growth seems most pronounced in the UK. TA numbers in England and Wales have trebled since 2000, and TAs now comprise a quarter of the workforce in mainstream state schools.

The growth of TAs

One principal reason for the increase in TA numbers worldwide is that they have become integral to processes of inclusion of pupils with special educational needs (SEN). In England and Wales at least, another key factor has been the implementation in 2003 of the National Agreement, which sought to raise pupil standards and tackle excessive teacher workload, in large part via new and expanded support roles and responsibilities for TAs and other support staff.

There remains much debate about the appropriate role of TAs. There is ambiguity, because in one sense TAs can help pupils indirectly by enhancing teaching (e.g. by taking on teachers’ administrative duties), but, as we shall see, many TAs have a direct teaching role, interacting daily with pupils (mainly those with SEN), supplementing teacher input, and providing opportunities for one-to-one and small group work.

Given the scale of the increase in TAs, and their direct, educational role, it is vital to ask about their impact on pupils’ educational progress. Here, we report on the largest study yet conducted on TAs – the five-year Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project – which described the characteristics and deployment of TAs and other support staff, and addressed TAs’ impact on teachers, teaching and pupils.

The impact of TAs on educational outcomes

A main limitation of previous research in this field is the lack of rigorous empirical studies of TA impact when judged in relation to normal forms of deployment, under everyday conditions, over the school year. Such results were provided for the first time by the DISS study. The analysis studied the effects of TA support (based on teacher estimates and systematic observations) on 8,200 pupils’ academic progress in English, mathematics and science. Two cohorts in seven age groups, across 153 mainstream schools, were tracked over one year each. Sophisticated statistical analysis controlled for factors known to affect progress (and the allocation of TA support), such as pupils’ SEN status, prior attainment, eligibility for free school meals, English as an additional language, deprivation, gender and ethnicity.

The results were striking: 16 of the 21 results were in a negative direction; there were no positive effects of TA support for any subject or for any year group. Those pupils receiving the most TA support made less progress than similar pupils who received little or no TA support, even after controlling for factors listed above.

Before we seek to explain these findings, it is worth addressing what some might see as contrary results from other studies on TA impact. Reviews by Alborz et al and Slavin et al looked at experimental studies that examined the effect of TAs who deliver (mostly literacy) interventions, and concluded that TAs tend to have a positive impact on pupil progress when they are prepared and trained, and have support and guidance about practice.

However, these studies only show what is possible under certain circumstances, when TAs are trained for a specific task, not what the effect of TAs might be under normal circumstances. We know that TA-led interventions take up only a small part of pupils’ days.

A study published in 2010 by the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) reported findings claiming to show a positive effect of TAs on pupils’ academic performance. However, the statistical analysis in the DISS project is far larger, sophisticated and robust than that used in the TDA study, and the TDA research is so limited and flawed in its design and statistical analysis that no firm conclusions can be drawn(1).

Explaining the DISS project findings: The Wider Pedagogical Role model

So, how do we account for the negative results on pupils’ progress found in the DISS study? One obvious explanation might be that pupils given most TA support would, in any event, have been likely to make less progress. However, such explanations are unlikely, because pre-existing pupil characteristics that typically affect progress and the reason for TA support (e.g. prior attainment and SEN status) were controlled for in the statistical analysis. This is explained more fully in Blatchford et al (2009).

If pupil factors cannot explain the negative relationship between TA support and academic progress, what could? We argue that the relationship is attributable to decisions made – often with the best of intentions – about how TAs are deployed and prepared, and over which they have little or no control.

The Wider Pedagogical Role (WPR) model was developed to summarise and interpret other results from the DISS study concerning the broader context within which TAs work, and the factors likely to maximise or inhibit their effectiveness (see Webster et al, 2011 for full details). There are three key components of the WPR model: preparedness, deployment and practice.

Preparedness concerns the lack of training and professional development of TAs and teachers, and the limited opportunities for day-to-day planning and feedback between teachers and TAs before and after lessons. For example, our survey of over 4,000 teachers found that 75 per cent reported having had no training to help them work with TAs; and 75 per cent reported having no allocated planning or feedback time with TAs.

On the basis of findings from over 1,600 workload diaries and over 220 hours of careful moment-by-moment observations in 67 schools, it is clear that TAs are deployed in a direct teaching role, supporting and interacting with pupils, usually in one-to-one and group contexts, and predominantly with pupils with SEN. The more severe a pupil’s needs, the more interaction with a TA increased, and interaction with a teacher, decreased. The interactions pupils have with TAs are more sustained and interactive than those they have with teachers. This might seem pedagogically valuable, but it leads to TA-supported pupils becoming separated from the teacher, missing out on everyday teacher-to-pupil interactions and mainstream curriculum coverage (especially if TAs are given responsibility for leading interventions away from the classroom).

On the basis of our detailed analyses of audio recordings of teacher-pupil and TA-pupil dialogue, we concluded that pupils’ interactions with TAs are much lower in quality than those with teachers. We found that TAs are more concerned with task completion than learning; and inadequate preparation leads to TAs’ interactions being reactive. In addition, we found that teachers generally “open up” pupil talk, whereas TAs “close down” talk, both linguistically and cognitively.

Ways forward

The largest study to date of the deployment and impact of TAs has therefore shown they have a predominantly remedial role, supporting lower-attaining pupils and those with SEN. Teachers like this arrangement, because they can then teach the rest of the class in the knowledge that the children in most need get more individual attention. But the more support pupils get from TAs, the less they get from teachers. Therefore, it is perhaps unsurprising that these pupils make less progress.

The TDA report argued that the benefits of TAs are felt by the rest of the class. Last year’s Headteacher Update article (The right balance, May 2010) echoed this, speculating that this was one way of reconciling the TDA findings with the DISS research. However, we must point out the DISS project did not find consistent evidence that TA support did benefit the rest of the class – though this possibility requires more research.

As US academic Michael Giangreco has argued, we would not accept a situation in which children without SEN are routinely taught by TAs instead of teachers. The present default position, where pupils get alternative – not additional – support from TAs, lets down the most disadvantaged children.

Given the power of research evidence to inform decision-making, it is vital that findings on TA impact are not cherry-picked in order to defend current forms of TA deployment that the DISS study has shown to be ineffective, or, for that matter, to justify disproportionate responses to the situation the project uncovered. For example, Reform (a right-of-centre think-tank) recently cited the project findings to argue for a significant reduction in TA numbers as part of efficiency savings.

Heads and teachers tell us their schools would struggle to function without TAs, but they find it tricky to demonstrate where TA support has improved pupil outcomes. We agree that TAs could make a huge contribution to schools, but our view is that progress can only be made if we first recognise that there is a problem with widespread models of deploying TAs, and then take steps to find alternative, more effective ways of utilising them.

Through our current research and consultancy activities, we are beginning to address the issues raised by the DISS research, working in collaboration with schools, using their existing resources, to develop and evaluate strategies for improving TA deployment and preparation.

Our starting point for this new research (funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation) is that we need a fundamental rethink of the appropriate pedagogical role of TAs. For too long we have avoided confronting some key questions about TA deployment based on untested assumptions that they help to raise standards. Headteachers must ask: should TAs have a primary, frontline instructional role? If so, what should this consist of? If not, what would a secondary non-pedagogical role consist of? A book on the whole of the DISS project will be published by Routledge later this year, as will a handbook, based on our work with schools, which will suggest alternative ways of using TAs.

• For more on the research, visit Readers may be interested to know that Dr Anthony Russell and Rob Webster will lead a half-day workshop for school leaders exploring ways forward for TAs at the Institute of Education Summer School in London on July 26.


- Alborz et al. (2009) The impact of adult support staff on pupils and mainstream schools, London: DCSF & Institute of Education
- Blatchford et al. (2009) The impact of support staff in schools. Results from the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff project. (Strand 2 Wave 2), London: DCSF
- Brown & Harris (2010) Increased expenditure on associate staff in schools and changes in student attainment, London: TDA
- Giangreco & Doyle (2007) Teacher assistants in inclusive schools. In Florian (ed.), The SAGE handbook of special education, London: Sage
- Slavin et al. (2009) Effective programs for struggling readers: A best evidence synthesis, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University
- Webster, R. et al. (2011) The wider pedagogical role of teaching assistants, School Leadership and Management, 31(1)

1: Briefly, the TDA report presents associations between school-level growth in TA numbers and gains in attainment, and growth in expenditure on TAs and gains in attainment at GCSE between 2005 and 2008. Claims made about the statistical significance of the relationships between the variables are weak, and in the case of that between expenditure and attainment, would be rejected by peer-reviewed journals. Moreover, an association does not mean that one thing caused the other. There are a number of likely school-related factors that might have accounted for increases in achievement, other than TA numbers, but unfortunately these were not factored into the analysis. The sample of schools is also small and unrepresentative, heavily skewed to high-attaining schools. For these reasons, the results are not interpretable, and the interpretation in the TDA press release promoting the study is not just incorrect, but misleading.

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