SEND Review: What about support staff?

Written by: Leigh Powell | Published:
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When it comes to the often-crucial role of support staff in supporting effective SEND provision, the long-awaited SEND Review is almost silent – this cannot be right, says Leigh Powell

We know that the SEND system is not working. It’s not working for children and young people and it’s not working for the staff who devote their working lives to supporting them.

The much-delayed SEND Review (DfE, 2022) should be an opportunity to address the many problems of the current system (for the sake of our children it needs to be) but will it?

The SEND Review has some laudable aims. It tackles entrenched issues that anyone who has ever been part of the system will immediately recognise – the exhausting and adversarial system for getting a child’s needs recognised, and most importantly met (as infamously highlighted by the Education Select Committee back in 2019), as well as issues around the spiralling costs of inappropriate provision.

But it overlooks a key area: the staff at the chalkface who support learners with special needs every day – the teaching assistants. They get one mention down at the bottom of page 43 where we are told that schools will be advised how to deploy them effectively.

There is no mention of how the low pay and lack of progression opportunities is leading to huge recruitment and retention problems. There is no mention of how teaching assistants will be supported to carry out their jobs relating to SEND support.

Every day many are dealing with the consequences of a child whose needs are not being met – the poor behaviour that sometimes results in staff being physically attacked, putting in extra unpaid hours just to get the job done, being expected to administer complicated medical procedures that should be being delivered by trained healthcare professionals, and being taken away from their duties due to staff shortages elsewhere in the school (most notably being expected to cover for absent teachers – especially during the Covid staff shortages we have seen this year).

People who choose to become teaching assistants do so because they really want to help children to succeed – they are people who care. But there is only so much they can take, and many are choosing to turn their backs on the job they love because they simply cannot take any more. No amount of guidance on “deployment” will address the issue of there simply not being enough people to deploy.

In this context and to my mind these are the elephants in the room of the SEND Review:

  • A lack of a proper professional development structure for teaching assistants.
  • Proper pay for support staff, commensurate with their responsibilities and abilities.
  • The need to increase the number of teaching assistants.
  • The lack of clear lines of responsibility for too many teaching assistants, who are being taken away from supporting learners to perform tasks outside of their job descriptions. This is particularly important for staff who support pupils with health needs which should be being delivered by healthcare professionals (which is a practice which borders on unethical).

The SEND Review assumes that if schools concentrate on “quality first teaching” and become part of a multi-academy trust (MAT) then all will be well.

What evidence is there that being part of a MAT will help children with SEND? For years UNISON has seen MATs “restructuring” their teaching assistants out of their jobs and cutting the pay of those who remain.

There is considerable evidence (e.g. Black et al, 2019) demonstrating that MATs cherry-pick pupils, not least via admissions arrangements, and set limits on the number of SEND students they will take, deploying covert selection methods to avoid giving them a place. This is immoral.

SEND learners need so much more than they can access presently. They need early intervention, specialist support services and therapies, mental health support and access to high-quality careers advice. The SEND review touches on all of these areas but it all needs to be resourced – will this happen? It didn’t back in 2014 when the SEND system was last overhauled and the current SEND Code of Practice introduced, and there’s little reason for optimism now.

Then, as well as now, the important role of the teaching assistant was overlooked and downplayed. Being a teaching assistant, while rewarding, is difficult – a huge depth of knowledge and array of skills are needed to perform the role successfully. Retaining the wealth of experience in the great people already in our nurseries, schools and colleges as well as making the profession attractive to new entrants is key.

Only then will we be able to ensure all children and young people get the education they need and deserve.

  • Leigh Powell is national officer for education and children’s services with UNISON.

Further information & resources

  • Black et al: Academisation of schools in England and placements of pupils with SEN: An analysis of trends, 2011–2017, Frontiers in Education, February 2019:
  • DfE: Open consultation: SEND review: right support, right place, right time, March 2022 (closes July 1, 2022):
  • Education Select Committee: Education Selection Committee: Special education needs and disabilities, October 2019:

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