The Sunday Times and the Daily Mail have both reported that the Treasury and the Department for Education are considering phasing out the country’s 232,000 teaching assistants (TAs) in an attempt to save around £4billion a year from the public purse. This sparked lively debates on breakfast and lunchtime radio, with spokespeople from the Reform thinktank making the economic case for change.
As my colleague Peter Blatchford has recently argued, privileging the economic argument for reducing TA numbers and increasing class sizes over the educational arguments misses the point. We have shown that TAs need to be used more effectively in order to realise their huge potential, and for us, this remains the strongest argument to retaining the TA workforce: there’s more to be gained from investing in TAs more wisely, than discontinuing the role altogether.
This aside, here are five reasons why we need to think carefully about any dramatic cut in TA numbers – none of which have been taken into consideration so far in the debate on the future of TAs.
1. Increasing joblessness. The newspaper reports suggest that 232,000 TAs jobs would be cut, though probably not all at the same time. However, this figure is based on the full-time equivalent number of TAs in mainstream and special schools in England. Crucially, it hides the part-time nature of the TA role. According to the government’s own data, there are actually 359,200 individual TAs employed by schools in England. Leaving aside the 32,600 TAs working in special schools – where the TA role is more established – doing away with the TAs could result in making well over 300,000 people unemployed.
2. The disproportionate impact on women. The TA role is almost exclusively a role held by women. Again, according to the government’s own stats, 93% of the current TA workforce are women, many of them working mothers.
3. Lunchtimes. A large proportion of TAs, especially in primary schools, also hold positions as lunchtime supervisors. This makes sense as TAs are often not paid over the lunch hour, so can spend this time earning. Schools appreciate this too as lunchtime roles are hard to fill. The consistency of having familiar faces supporting pupils in the less structured environments of the dinner hall and the playground can go unnoticed, but is hugely valued by schools. Getting rid of TAs in such large numbers would almost certainly create the additional and unintended problem of decimating the school lunchtime workforce.
4. Wider implications for teacher professionalism. As has been well documented over recent months, pensions, pay and workload are currently very much live issues within the teaching profession. Our research shows that TAs are invaluable in reducing teacher workload and feelings of stress. Removing TAs from the classroom, as well as the dinner hall and playground, would most likely mean teachers would need to fill the gap. It is important to remember that the rapid growth in TA numbers a decade ago was in response to a recruitment and retention crisis in teaching.
5. Undermining inclusion. As we concluded in a recent study, TAs are central to the good work schools do in educating and including pupils with the highest level of special educational needs in mainstream settings. The repeated failure to address SEN as part of initial teacher training* means that many teachers are not adequately prepared to meet the needs of pupils who struggle most with learning and engagement. There is a substantial risk that, under current conditions, policies of inclusion would fail without the paraprofessional tier.
I can only echo Peter Blatchford’s conclusion that getting rid of TAs is a ‘very bad idea’ on educational grounds. However, I would add that there are also economic and political reasons to think twice.
Rob Webster has conducted research at the Institute of Education, London on the use and impact of TAs. For more visit, www.schoolsupportstaff.net
* Hodkinson, A. (2009) Pre‐service teacher training and special educational needs in England 1970–2008: is government learning the lessons of the past or is it experiencing a groundhog day?, European Journal of Special Needs Education, 24(3), pp. 277-289.