For several years now, there has been much speculation about the role and value of teaching assistants. Before I write any more, let me make it clear from the outset that I think the TAs we have in our school are, without doubt, the most valuable resource we have to help ensure the progress we want and need for our children.
On my Twitter newsfeed this morning, I had, within the space of a few minutes, two very contrasting reports. The Guardian Teacher Network reported on ways in which TAs can be deployed effectively, whereas the Telegraph went with the more damning headline stating that TAs are “harming pupils’ education” by being asked to cover absent teachers. The role of the TA is something that we have recently been discussing at school, as we have some amazing staff who are not being used to their full potential. While the Telegraph’s headline was very dramatic, it is very easy to see how a child’s education can be damaged if staff members are not utilised in a way that suits the needs of everyone involved. Take, for example, a child who receives 1:1 support. In many cases in mainstream education, the role of the TA here is of course to help the child to access the curriculum, but also to provide them with strategies to help them to gain and then develop independence. This is never going to happen if the child is ensconced in a corridor somewhere, working on their own without access to group work or the ideas and influences of other children. It can be amazing to see how, in some children, those who have been permanently isolated with a TA can suddenly flourish when given the opportunity to work with others. I would argue that the education, and certainly the personal and social aspects of learning, are being seriously hindered for a child who is being asked to work in this way. Undoubtedly, TAs in this situation are removing the child in order to help them to focus so they can work with them, perhaps at the request of the teacher, but often it can take an outsider to see the negative impact of working in this way.
The Guardian report states that “students with TA support made less progress than children of similar ability, who received little or no help. More worryingly, this was most noticeable among special educational needs (SEN) students, who traditionally attract the most TA time.” This is in no way a derogatory remark aimed at TAs, but more a reflection of the pressure that they are being put under by being expected to support many of our most needy children. Ultimately, these are the children who can require the most skill and support to help them to progress, which should be provided by a qualified teacher. We have some incredibly skilled and talented TAs in our school who have been trained to undertake a variety of intervention programmes. For me, this is a separate issue to class teaching of maths and English. I am always happy for children who are not making progress to be withdrawn from a class for a short amount of time for targeted interventions (although when to do this is another contentious issue), but ultimately I am accountable for their progress, so I should be the one during lessons to help them to achieve and to monitor their progress. That is not to say that children with SEN or those who are not making progress should never be allowed to work with a TA during lessons, but they should have the same opportunities as the rest of the class. I recently wrote about a new approach to working with TAs, where we take it in turns to work with the different ability groups within a class. While we have yet to fully trial this, I can see that there are going to be definite advantages. While all children have the opportunity to work with both me as the class teacher and the TA, there will also be opportunities for independent work, which is vital for them to make progress. The biggest issue here will be one raised by the Guardian: time to communicate. In reality, when do we really have time to sit down and talk things through? Passing on a plan is a possible solution, but not the same as talking face to face. Perhaps we need to consider bringing TAs in on our PPA time so we can share the plans for the week. However, with even the most well informed planning, a maths plan created at the end of one week never quite goes exactly as intended the following week. Methods of communication will really need to be effective.
In my opinion, it’s also important for TAs to be given some of the same training opportunities as teaching staff. If we are going to ask TAs to be teaching groups, then we need to be using the same strategies, language and even mind set. We have been introducing aspects of Di Pardoe’s “Successful Learning” recently, which talks very much about challenging ourselves and being “movers” rather than “blockers”. This has definitely influenced the kind of language I use with my children, so we need to ensure that we have consistency within the classroom. Of course, deploying TAs effectively can only work if we know and utilise the strengths of those we work with. For example, one of the TAs I work with has a real passion for maths and loves problems solving activities, so she is always more than happy to work with my more able year4 mathematicians, and has been happy to do this in the upper juniors too. Others may not have the same confidence to do this, so we need to make sure that we are asking TAs to provide support that they are confident with. Training may not be available, so communication, time to prepare and sufficient resources are key to ensuring success.
While I don’t have a full time TA in my class, our TA does work full time within our 2 form entry year group. Sharing out her time is always a contentious issue: do we give all of the TA support to our less able maths group? Is this fair on the more able children who still have difficulties and need support from both myself and a TA? For me, I love having a TA in the room with me. I would happily have someone in class with me all of the time – someone to help to support, to challenge, to engage, to monitor, to help assess, and perhaps most importantly for me, someone to bounce off of. The sign of a good teacher:TA relationship is when you are happy to interject, make observations or ask questions together. The children get to see that it is ok to ask questions and to challenge ideas, or to do things a different way. For other teachers, it seems they can feel uncomfortable having another adult in the room with them. Perhaps it’s insecurity, perhaps a feeling of a lack of control by letting children out of their sight. I don’t know, but whatever the reason, as soon as they recognise the true value of a good TA, they are bound to reap the benefits of successful teamwork.