During the coming spring term, many school business managers and school leaders will be grappling with the hard realities of a budget that simply won’t balance.
The Autumn Statement confirmed an additional £2bn will be allocated to the core school budgets in each of the next two funding years, starting April 2023. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says this will restore school spending to 2010 levels in real terms (for a full analysis of the implications for schools, see Headteacher Update, 2022).
And yet whatever politicians claim they are providing to schools, rising costs thanks to soaring inflation, soaring energy bills, and increasing demands on school resources mean many schools are not yet out of the woods.
A survey (pre-Autumn Statement) from the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT, 2022) last term reflects the hard decisions that school leaders anticipate being forced to make over the next few months.
When asked what they would cut if the funding situation does not improve, the most popular response from 1,100 school leaders was teaching assistants or teaching assistants’ hours (at 66%).
Given teaching assistants make up 35% of the primary school workforce (Sharples et al, 2018) it is perhaps unsurprising they are under threat. In addition, 47% said they would be forced to reduce non-educational support and services for children, including things like counselling, therapy and mental health support, while 44% said they would reduce spending on additional targeted interventions for pupils.
Only 2% of schools said that they would not need to find any cuts in the next financial year (2023/24). Since then we have seen the £2bn pledged by chancellor Jeremy Hunt, but with costs rising across the board and an unfunded teacher salary rise to pay for, teaching assistants are still looking over their shoulders.
The NAHT’s report raised particular concern about the impact of likely cuts on the most vulnerable pupils: “The staffing cuts (proposed) are disproportionately likely to affect pupils with SEND, vulnerable pupils, pupils with low prior attainment, and pupils with mental health and wellbeing needs.”
Valuing our TAs
The Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit suggests that if teaching assistants are deployed correctly they “can provide a large positive impact on learner outcomes”. It suggests that where teaching assistants are trained to deliver an intervention to small groups or individuals it can have a higher impact (EEF, 2021; see also Sharples et al, 2018).
It adds: “There is also evidence that working with teaching assistants can lead to improvements in pupils’ attitudes and also to positive effects in terms of teacher morale, workload and reduced stress.”
It is very difficult to measure the impact that these softer aspects of the role can have on morale within the school.
Awarding body NCFE is championing the work that teaching assistants do via its “All I do” campaign. Its research states that 88% of primary teachers say that they don’t have all the help they need to support students with SEND.
Angie Rogers, subject specialist at NCFE, said: ‘Teaching assistants deliver a wealth of value for schools, yet often don’t receive the recognition their role deserves. We want to raise awareness of the impact teaching assistants are having every single day in supporting the needs of children and young people.”
Also, the preference of school leaders for reducing teaching assistant numbers seems particularly harsh given the crucial support that these members of staff provided at the height of Covid.
The report Unsung heroes (Moss et al, 2021) found that 88% of teaching assistants supported vulnerable and key worker children in school and were key to keeping primary schools open during lockdown. Half of teaching assistants also stepped up to manage classes while teachers delivered remote education.
Cutting staffing costs remains the way in which schools can most drastically reduce their budgets. Leaders often feel that small cuts here and there make little difference, whereas the removal of one member of staff or a significant cut in hours can balance the books more quickly. However, reducing the role of teaching assistants in supporting the neediest pupils in the school will have longer term implications.
Indeed, we have often been told how important it is to provide early intervention to reduce the need for more expensive help in the long term.
Ofsted has reported on this very issue (2022), saying that schools need more specialist help for primary-age children with additional needs. It draws attention to the fact that some children are being referred to alternative provision who might otherwise be catered for in the mainstream environment.
The report finds that the number of primary-age children in England known to be in alternative provision has risen by a quarter in the last five years and that interventions at an earlier stage may have prevented some of these pupils needing this provision: “Primary staff told Ofsted that the strain on specialist services nationally, exacerbated by the pandemic – has made it more difficult to support pupils with SEN.
“Limited access to professional help, such as speech and language therapists or educational psychology services, could be leading to more alternative provision referrals and potentially more permanent exclusion.”
Although teaching assistants do not directly provide the specialist help required, they may have the time to support and value the small steps that children with behavioural difficulties, such as ADHD, might need. Furthermore, disruption of lessons through challenging behaviour has an impact on all the students in the classroom. Removing the teaching assistant may help balance the books, but we have to ask ourselves clearly and firmly: at what cost?
Given this impact, schools might consider other ways to save money. For example, are all your teaching and learning responsibility payments value for money?
Following Covid many schools have found staff reassessing their work/life balance and, as such, there may be some who have tired of extra roles. Look carefully as a leadership team at the longer term implications of removing your teaching assistants. What impact will a reduction in teaching assistant hours have in that specific year group, with the class or for that individual and those around them:
- What exactly is this teaching assistant responsible for?
- How much specialist training have they received that will be lost?
- What might the longer-term impact be as this individual/class/year group move through the school?
- What will be the wider impact: to the class, teachers, year group?
Reducing teaching assistant support affects the most vulnerable pupils at a time when they are likely to already be suffering from other changes in their environment. School leaders have some difficult decisions to make and this article does not offer the answer – every context will be different. However, it does aim to encourage schools to ask a few more questions when it comes to who stays and who goes...
- Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.
Headteacher Update Spring Term Edition 2023
This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Spring Term Edition 2023. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital version of this edition is available via www.headteacher-update.com/digital-editions/
Further information & resources
- EEF: Teaching assistant interventions, Teaching and Learning Toolkit, June 2021: https://bit.ly/3Gx2Xlh
- Headteacher Update: School funding: What can we expect following the Autumn Statement? December 2022: https://bit.ly/3F5PS2e
- Moss et al: Unsung heroes: The role of teaching assistants and classroom assistants in keeping schools functioning during lockdown, UCL Institute of Education, March 2021: https://bit.ly/3WeI70L
- NAHT: The cliff edge, November 2022: https://bit.ly/3hdZRec
- NCFE: All i do: www.ncfe.org.uk/celebrating-teaching-assistants/
- Ofsted: Alternative provision for primary-age pupils in England, November 2022: https://bit.ly/3VTEC02
- Sharples et al: Making best use of teaching assistants: Guidance report, EEF, 2018: http://bit.ly/3angH2t