Can I be of assistance?

Last Friday was National Teaching Assistants Day, organised by Unison to celebrate teaching assistants, learning support assistants and other support staff. At the school I was teaching at, the TAs got the special awards that the kids normally get and the kids presented them with little testimonies on how great the TAs were. It was a very sweet way to celebrate staff that add much to schools, learning, the children’s school lives, indeed, as well as the teachers’. I have to say that I have had mixed feelings on teaching assistants. A teacher friend once said to me, before I was even a parent, let alone a teacher, that teaching assistants were just going to end up being unqualified cheap alternative teachers. That was an impression that I found hard to budge.

I went to school in the 1970s and early 1980s and one of the main differences noticed on re-experiencing education was the greater number of non-teaching adults in schools in general and classrooms in particular. When I was in school, there was one teacher in the classroom and that was it. Maybe there would be some lab assistants for sceince but that was it, especially in primary schools. However, since then, an ethos where the teacher was the autonomous leader of a classroom, educating a whole classroom solely, reviewing and aiding the pupils’ progress themselves has been replaced by teachers doing less whole-class teaching, dividing the class into smaller workgroups and being supported by non-QTS (qualified teacher status) staff. However, has the expansion of non-QTS staff aided the teacher and the children or has it hindered the teacher in bringing in another level of classroom management – that of adults? Do teaching assistants help children receive more focussed attention that will enhance their learning or merely less attention from the teacher? Are teachers able to spend more time teaching or are non-QTS staff taking over more pedagogical responsibility? Is the increased role of non-QTS staff actually diluting of the primacy of the teachers and contributing to a process of de-professionalising schools and in areas where children are under the responsibility of non-QTS staff – such as break- and lunch-times – impacting negatively on children’s behaviour in classrooms?

The last time, I studied this, in 2010, there were 213,900 teaching assistants in English schools, 16.5 % more than in 2009 and representing a tripling in number over the last decade. This represents just over 19% of the total full-time equivalent workforce in publicly funded schools in England. Combined with other regular support and auxiliary staff, this represents nearly 60% of the total workforce that are not teachers This means that children routinely encounter many different adults in their school career who have many different levels of qualification and experience of working with children and an increasing impact on children’s safety, discipline and, indeed, academic attainment.

As with many elements of schools and teaching in Britain, it is since the 1988 Education Reform Act 1988 that an increase in non-teaching staff has been seen. ‘Welfare assistants’ were referenced in the 1967 Plowden Report, along with the few other non-teaching staff at the time e.g.. secretaries and school meals assistants. However, at this time, they were not working in the classroom and certainly not teaching, due to the – perhaps prescient –  fear that, as Plowden put it, “the profession should be diluted by allowing ancillaries to operate within the classroom”. Teachers themselves were becoming more professional at this time as teaching became a graduate-only profession, thereby widening the qualification gap between themselves and non-QTS staff. However the Report did recommend qualifications for ‘welfare assistants’ so that they could prepare classrooms and equipment for the teachers.

Numbers of teaching assistants grew after the introduction of the Education Act 1996 which legislated that local authorities should provide staff to support children with special educational needs to reduce exclusion. Further reforms were felt to be needed to streamline the intensive workload of teacher and, to this end, the Department of Employment and Skills implemented the Workload Agreement in 2003. As well as restrictions of working hours, this introduced clear advice of which administrative tasks non-QTS staff in the school would take over, such as first aid, administration, preparation of classrooms for lessons, invigilating tests, monitoring and assessing children as well as support for ‘less able’ children and children with SEN. It also introduced planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time, for which 10% of a teacher’s weekly hours was allocated. This was also the beginning of suggestions that teaching assistants move into more teaching roles and responsibility for children’s welfare. This was seen as the preferable option as it was cheaper than employing more teachers as cover for PPA time and, also, qualified teacher numbers were falling, due to an ageing workforce, numbers leaving due to workload, stress and low morale as well as reduced recruitment due to the same and a paucity of graduates.

After 2003, teaching assistants’ numbers and roles grew on an ad hoc basis – stemming from a blurring of role boundaries in many cases – with qualified status and training introduced but not compulsory. This ambiguity of roles also arose from the wide range of qualifications and experience that teaching assistants and other non-QTS staff members brought with them. Some parent volunteers, others qualified teachers themselves who have decided to become otherwise employed in schools in order to take advantage of lesser workload and responsibility (indeed, it was competing for jobs with the latter that made my decision to retrain). Ambiguity also arose where teaching assistants worked for several teachers, due to shared workload or teachers’ job-share. Many individuals may have several roles within schools in that they are teaching assistants as well as school meal supervisors (SMSAs), break- or lunch-time play-leaders or nurses. Teaching assistants, at primary level, have been concentrated on implementing national strategies for literacy and numeracy while, in secondary, they are linked to subject areas rather than teachers.

Teaching staff also have a great part to play in pastoral work with children and, also, behaviour management in the classroom, playground and around the school. Indeed, behaviour management is possibly the teaching assistants’ major role and support for the teacher. There is little doubt that teaching assistants can be more approachable and accessible and have differing relationships with children that can complement the teacher’s. Sometimes this is due to teaching assistants sharing links or background with the children, their family and community; sometimes, it is because they spend more one-to-one time being a dedicated support worker for a child or as part of extended school activities. Often, especially in the case of bilingual teaching assistants, they are a crucial form of communication and mediation between parents, children and teachers. There is a danger, however, that children and, perhaps, parents can become over-reliant on teaching assistants, especially where they are providing one-to-one support and perhaps undermining the teacher’s role. There are also issues raised where teaching assistant may be doing too much for children and restricting their independent learning. Furthermore, teaching assistants can find that these differing relationships an advantage in behaviour management but blurred boundaries between teacher and teaching assistant can be a disadvantage as children recognise that teaching assistants are below teachers in the school hierarchy. This view can sometimes be reinforced by parents, teachers and, indeed, teaching assistants themselves.

Continuity of care by teaching assistants, especially with children with additional support needs, is crucial. However, while teaching assistants are viewed as especially important in supporting children with additional support needs or who are ‘less able’, this can lead to the teacher concentrating on the majority, leaving such learners under the responsibility of non-QTS staff. Research shows that the presence of teaching assistants, certainly for those children with one-to-one support, ending up having the effect of interactions with the teacher being reduced, sometimes by up to 50%. In classrooms carrying out good practice, teachers and teaching assistants exchange roles regularly so that teachers can spend time with and concentrate on less able children or those with additional support needs. The Labour Government’s claims that teaching assistants had been central to raising standards’ were the basis for their suggestion that teaching assistants took over more teaching roles. While, initially, there did appear to be an improvement in pupil attainment after the workforce remodelling in 2003, there has been little long-term evidence of their sustained impact on academic progress.

There is no doubt that teachers, on the whole, value their teaching assistants. Teaching assistants can end up being a link and source of continuity between permanent teachers and supply teachers, job-sharing teachers or teachers of differing levels of experience – explaining the common ethos, structures and practices of the school and the classroom and passing on practical and intellectual knowledge. This can, however, lead to tensions and difficulties between teaching assistants and teachers e.g from a teaching assistant being interrupted in important literacy or numeracy support work in order to prepare materials or equipment or carry out behaviour management. Teaching assistants who have more experience than, perhaps, a newly qualified teacher can be reluctant to change practice. Also, the lack of detailed job descriptions and, also, clear line management e.g. not knowing whether to report to the individual teacher, special education needs co-coordinator or head-teacher – do not help teaching assistants or teachers. Many teachers and teaching assistants complain that there are not clear lines of responsibility regarding teaching assistants’ roles and workload (Butt and Lance,2009; General Teaching Council for England, 2003).

Research has found that regular and clear communication, joint planning and evaluation between teachers and teaching assistants is crucial and formal time should be set aside for this. Research has also shown that, in the last 30 years, teachers have lost 30-60 minutes a day in collaborative time with colleagues. This is mutual reflective practice lost that is crucial for teachers and, following on from this, all classroom staff. Teaching assistants and other non-QTS staff are often excluded from staff meetings where information and support is exchanged, sometimes merely due to meetings being at inconvenient times. Often, due to teaching assistants covering lunch-breaks or the lack of a tradition of teachers and other staff eating with each other, this informal opportunity for information exchange, evaluation and review is also lost. Where joint planning by teachers and non-QTS staff exists, it tends to be disorganised,irregular, incomplete and ineffective and training and time needs to given in order to remedy this. Similarly, it is important that teaching assistants have time to communicate and share information with other professionals, especially outside agencies. This is especially important where they are the link between these agencies, the teachers and/or the child and parents or are responsible for particular strategies e.g.. exercises from therapists for children with additional support needs.

As is common in other schools, the break- and play-times were supervised predominately by teaching assistants, play-workers and SMSAs. The many hidden areas in the playground meant that the area was difficult to supervise and oversee effectively. The school attempted to address this by having staggered age group break-times in order to reduce the number of children of different ages in the playground at one time. Even with these strategies in place, behaviour issues arising from the playground between children in the same age group were common and had an impact on the classroom directly after break-times. This led to the teacher and principal teaching assistant having to address issues and resolve conflicts reduced teaching time and often leading to continuing conflict and disruption amongst children. While the supervisors were fully aware of their responsibilities and issues around playground management and supervision, few were trained to a level greater than providing first aid and interventions to provide structured play opportunities were rare, mainly due to time needed to physically monitor the playground.

It would be difficult to evaluate from a limited placement period how much impact on pupil’s academic progress support staff had. Certainly, with the pedagogy of the class being based around small groups carrying out different tasks, it was difficult for the teacher to give significant focussed attention to individual children, however much they strived to achieve this. Whether this is due to the target-driven culture and the constraints of delivering a strict National curriculum with set numeracy and literacy time allocation or whether it is due to the presence of many support staff who could be seen to supplement one-to-one time, it is difficult to say. What is more clear is that, within the present classroom context, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for one teacher to effectively manage a class and its behaviour and develop and progress children’s education. The support staff’s duties in the classroom included preparation of the classroom, equipment and materials needed for the day, preparing reading books, one-to-one numeracy and literacy tasks, supporting small groups of children in tasks set by the teacher, monitoring progress of individual children and making notes for individual education plans and Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) target attainment records.

Teaching assistants could free teachers to actually teach and reduce their workload rather than involving themselves with pastoral or administration work and there is evidence that this is happening. However, it can also lead to the teacher merely becoming a lead professional or manager of a group of workers, which could end up weakening their relationships with children and de-professionalising teaching, only 40 years after it became a professional role. Similarly, pastoral work should never be removed from a teacher’s role in order to for them to be effective educators. Reducing the autonomous nature of teaching with increased participation of teaching assistants could certainly reduce personal nature of teaching, especially where teaching assistants work for other teachers as well. However, while dilution of the primacy of teachers in classrooms may not automatically be a deficiency, diluting it with staff with no or lesser professional qualifications could cause irreparable harm. Teaching and schools could be in danger of becoming ‘technicist’ de-skilled and de-professionalised institutions and teachers could become managers of facilitators of curriculum delivery rather than pedagogical practitioners and innovators themselves. Replacing teaching time with teaching assistants or other adults while the teacher is left to merely manage a team could demotivate trained professionals, many of whom entered a profession with the intent of educating children. Increase of non-QTS staff teaching alone is not the answer to developing children’s academic progress and enhancing their time at school or decreasing teachers workload or increasing their effective interactions with children. Reducing class sizes, rather, would be more effective in raising pupil attainment than employing more teaching assistants.

Presently, there is still no national requirement for support staff to have formal qualifications and those that are offered have yet to penetrate the profession greatly. The Higher Level Teaching Assistant qualification (HLTA), introduced in 2004, certainly could be made more available and, perhaps, become compulsory if teaching assistants becoming more pedagogically involved becomes a reality. Certainly, this should be seen as the minimum qualification and the accompanying standards, training and development should give teaching assistants clear career progression with qualified teacher status, higher salaries and greater job satisfaction all possibilities. The Labour government certainly appeared to view the HLTA as a step in the path to becoming a fully-qualified teacher and allocating time, funding and encouraging staff to do this would be a step in recruiting teachers with classroom experience. However, a result of non-qualified teaching staff planning and teaching lessons should be avoided for reasons of teacher morale and children’s welfare. Indeed, many teachers believe that teaching assistants are already taking on a more pedagogical role and that there should be clearly defined boundaries between teachers and teaching assistants to provide clarity of responsibility and roles for the benefit of both professions, children and parents.

Good teachers can be and, ideally are, good managers of children as well as skilled educators. It does not necessarily follow that they have the skills for delegating to and managing adults . There is often the added pressure of managing teaching assistants and other non-teaching colleagues that meant the extra pair of hands added to rather than lessened the workload. As well as training of teaching assistants, teachers – especially newly qualified teachers – must be supported with training in the management and mentoring of the adults that will be helping them and in management of contact in multi-agency contexts. This level of management may add extra work in planning and preparation but, implemented properly, can benefit children’s learning, teachers’ and teaching assistants’ workload and job satisfaction.

Teaching assistants are part of a team that children have contact with, often every day and the most effective of these teams work in a mutually supportive and collaborative manner. Mutual support and collaboration amongst all staff is crucial and time and resources must be allowed for this. These roles are now a pivotal and integral component in a schools with great influence on children’s education and should be treated as such. Teaching assistants can be especially crucial in interventions for children with additional needs or who are less able but they have to be managed well to be fully efficient in this respect. Well managed and trained teaching assistants deployed correctly have been found to have a clear beneficial effect e.g. on pupils attainment – especially in literacy and reading – but this is only in a minority of schools.Schools have to be adept at identifying the children who require interventions and ensure accurate and efficient deployment of teaching assistants to be effective

There are areas in which the employment and deployment of teaching assistants and other non-QTS staff can be improved ensuring efficiency and effectiveness and, possibly, a direct measurable gain for academic outcomes. The roles of teaching assistants and the perception of these roles have to be clear to all, from the staff themselves – through specific job descriptions – to children, parents and outside agencies. Qualifications, training, development and clear career paths should be offered, supported and encouraged for teaching assistants for their morale job satisfaction and for continuing professional expertise. Teaching assistants need to be deployed effectively and efficiently and, to this end, teachers and head-teachers themselves should be trained in management and mentoring of teaching assistants. Time, opportunity and resources should be allocated to teachers’ and teaching assistants collaboration, review, evaluation and planning. Clear communication between teachers, teaching assistants, outside agencies, children and parents is also crucial and, to this end, non-QTS staff should be included in staff and planning meetings.

Michael Gove now has not only started to introduce Free Schools where unqualified teachers are openly advertised for but also, earlier this year, suggested that the government will reduce considerably the amount of teaching assistants. When I first started training (and, since, working) in schools, I have lived in fear of teaching assistants that have been working in a school for years, don’t take to being managed by an inexperienced teacher and run a critical eye over everything that they do. In reality, I have met maybe three TAs like that and the rest have been mostly extremely diligent, helpful and extremely caring for the kids. Indeed, the three that were critical were, in their way, just the same as well. Whatever my ideological mixed feelings about teaching assistants and their place in schools, it stands presently that they are vital and integral to the current school system and all those those that teach and learn in it. If I trusted Gove to replace teaching assistants with more qualified teachers (as he has suggested) and dramatically improve the current school system, I would feel better but, you know…..

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