November 2012


  • Grade Expectations
    Comparable outcomes were intended to guarantee fairness for students from one year to the next. Now, in light of this year's GCSE English debacle, they appear to have become a way of fixing 'grade inflation'. Sue Kirkham looks at where and why the policy went awry. More
  • A move to the middle
    Concerned about flatlining results, Abbeyfield School in Wiltshire has switched to a curriculum for 11-14 year-olds built around 'big ideas', encouraging students to explore the links between subjects – and to their own lives. David Nicholson explains the thinking. More
  • Social network
    Is participation in social media a time-wasting distraction or a not-tobe- missed opportunity to engage with parents and communities? Susie Kearley reports. More
  • Growing potential
    Schools spend billions employing teaching assistants (TAs) with little evidence that they make a difference to attainment. Sue Tate and Ben O’Toole explore the challenges schools face in realising the potential of their support staff. More
  • All systems Gove...
    Following the government reshuffle, Daniel Cremin looks at some of the key personnel changes and their potential policy implications and explores whether the return of David Laws will put the brakes on Michael Gove's radicalism. More
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Schools spend billions employing teaching assistants (TAs) with little evidence that they make a difference to attainment. Sue Tate and Ben O’Toole explore the challenges schools face in realising the potential of their support staff.

Growing potential

English schools spend approximately £4.7 billion a year on teaching assistants and while few would claim that TAs are well paid, their salaries eat up a significant proportion of many school budgets.

The number of TAs has almost tripled since 1997 and there are now approximately 450,000, equivalent to 213,900 full-time posts. Yet the majority of schools do not appear to have any kind of strategic plan for the number they need to employ or for the knowledge and skills they expect those staff to possess or develop. TAs are often employed because of the entitlement of an individual child to a number of hours of one-to-one support. Frequently, they have been recruited from the ranks of midday assistants or parent volunteers and their role has expanded over time.

TA duties may include the traditional role of classroom tidying and setting out resources, but they increasingly encompass supporting children with specific learning difficulties or those in danger of under-achieving.

Evidence that the vastly increased numbers of support staff are improving pupil attainment is patchy at best with studies by Ofsted and the Institute of Education (IOE) suggesting that pupils who are routinely assigned to work with support staff can become isolated from the high-quality teaching they need. In particular, these studies raise concerns about the common practice of consigning children with the most complex needs to the least-qualified staff.

Support from a TA clearly has benefits in enabling a pupil to stay on task and access the curriculum but other benefits might be realised by sometimes allowing an experienced TA to work with the whole class on activities decided by the teacher and within the TA's expertise. Teachers could then use their professional skills to assess and teach children with more complex needs one-to-one or in small groups.

Key Strategies

Improving the effectiveness of TAs will be important for schools as, while budgets get tighter, the government and Ofsted are putting pressure on schools to do even more to bring less able children up to the expected standard. Schools are required to account for how they have used Pupil Premium funding to narrow the gap in attainment between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and others.

In a developmental project for the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, schools found that key strategies to enhance the effectiveness of TAs included:

  • ensuring TAs were better prepared to support pupils by enabling teachers to spend more time liaising with TAs and by including expected TA input in lesson plans
  • increasing TA support for middle- and high-attaining pupils, allowing teachers to spend more time assessing and working with low-attaining pupils and those with special educational needs (SEN)
  • encouraging TAs to focus on developing understanding rather than focusing on task completion, including developing their use of strategies (peer support, collaborative group work, formative assessment) that foster independent learning

For Clare Devine, head of Abbey Hill School and Technology College in Stockton, the starting point is to emphasise that teaching assistants are professional people with professional abilities. The school has 51 TAs working with young people from 11 to 19 who have special needs.

The school's management and leadership structure provides TAs with a framework for career development beginning with qualifications at levels 2 and 3. The structure gives TAs certainty about their role and allows them progressively to take on more responsibility and see the bigger picture, for example, developing their knowledge of the National Curriculum. Crucially, TAs are trained alongside teachers in areas such as assessment for learning, emotional intelligence, and leadership skills.

"Our efforts to develop the leadership skills of our teaching assistants have had a real impact on pupil progress," Clare says. "When schools recognise that the professional role of the teaching assistant is just as valid as that for teachers the impact in classrooms is very powerful."

A key measure of the success of the school's integrated staff development approach has been the local authority's (LA's) external validation service, the Inclusion Quality Mark, which has highlighted marked improvement in pupil attainment.

"If a teaching assistant sits next to a child whispering answers, the opportunity for learning has failed. When that teaching assistant sits next to a child and asks, 'How do you know?' the opportunity for learning is huge," Clare says.

Lutterworth College in Leicestershire employs a similarly inclusive approach to developing its learning support staff. The college uses performance reviews and one-to-one discussions to identify TAs' skills and strengths and deploy them to the most appropriate subject areas. TAs work closely with teachers in their subjects, supporting students to become independent learners. Higher level teaching assistants in subject teams work with teachers to identify and support under-achieving and vulnerable students, as well as supporting across the ability range.

Sandra Jackson, the college's staff wellbeing manager, says, "Our TAs receive training from subject staff on knowledge and understanding of the curriculum and also attend faculty meetings. Training also covers lesson planning, assessment for learning, Bloom's Taxonomy [of Learning Domains], body language and assertiveness, and behaviour management.

"We recommend all TAs hold qualifications such as the QCF [Qualifications and Credit Framework] certificate in supporting teaching and learning at levels 2 and 3."

No mandatory qualifications

Despite the increasing complexity of their work, there are no mandatory qualifications or initial training courses for teaching assistants and it is the responsibility of individual schools to decide if and how they will train their support staff. Research also shows that many teachers would welcome more training in working effectively with other adults in the classroom.

However, busy school leaders often lack the time to create tailored workforce development strategies and training opportunities for all their staff. Even teaching schools, which are at the forefront of plans for a self-improving school system, are likely to need help navigating existing standards, qualifications and research to help schools in their network recruit, develop and deploy their learning support staff most effectively.

Alongside these challenges, schools are able to draw on less support from local authority and government advisers than in the past as they grapple with difficult decisions as a result of budgetary constraints. There is increasing evidence that schools are making support staff redundant, not renewing contracts and not replacing staff that leave.

The danger is that if many schools lacked a strategic approach to managing the explosion in support staff numbers, the reduction in numbers will be similarly ad hoc with unpredictable impact.

The vast majority of TAs work very hard and are dedicated, but too often they are expected to support struggling children while they themselves have little or no initial training to develop their understanding of the curriculum or pedagogy.

Qualifications in supporting teaching and learning are available but they are only part of the solution. Equipping TAs with additional knowledge and understanding will only be effective if they are deployed in a way that enables them to make best use of their enhanced skills. With support, schools themselves are able to make the changes to deployment and develop the skills of their staff in a way that is cost-effective as well as tailored to their own needs and circumstances.

These concerns have led us and others with backgrounds in support staff training and national policy to form Supporting Excellence, an organisation that helps schools to take a strategic approach to workforce development. You can find out more at

  • Sue Tate was previously head of standards and qualifications for support staff at the training and development agency for schools (TDA)
  • Ben O'Tool was former programme leader for support stafftraining at the TDA