Recent Government data reveal the rise and rise of teaching assistants. Headcount figures show there are more TAs working in English state-funded primary schools than teachers: 257,300 vs. 242,300. In secondary schools, there are 70,700 TAs to 257,300 teachers.
While these numbers reflect the part-time nature of the role, they strengthen the case for professionalising these valued members of the school workforce.
This year, our SENJIT@IOE team worked with 26 schools in the inaugural Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) programme, supporting them through a process of rethinking and reforming their use of TAs. MITA is based on the principles and processes set out in our book of the same name, which in turn is based on findings from an extensive research programme.
Through MITA, we present a case for more effective uses of TAs, which schools apply and develop in their own setting. The programme gives school leaders and SENCos dedicated opportunities to think, reflect, discuss and plan, with sessions at the IOE and consultancy visits from an expert MITA Facilitator from the SENJIT team.
Our evaluation of the two-term project, based on feedback from participating schools, found that despite starting from different points, all schools made progress towards understanding and addressing the complex issues of rethinking the TA role and raising their profile in school.
Participants told us one of MITA’s strengths is the way it is structured around a robust evidence-informed framework for decision-making and action, based on empirical research. The framework helped participants appreciate the need for the deep structural changes that the research has revealed is essential if TAs are to have a lasting and meaningful impact on pupil outcomes.
MITA helped school leaders think more broadly about the issues relating to TA deployment, preparedness and their interactions with pupils (the MITA trinity!). Whilst schools identify training for TAs as an area of attention, on its own, it is no sliver bullet. For example, schools recognised that the need for change in relation to improving provision for pupils with SEN extended beyond TAs to improving teachers’ practice.
Indeed, the new Special Educational Needs Code of Practice proved a powerful additional catalyst for change. This is no coincidence; one of MITA’s key aims is, as the Code supports, to encourage schools to develop a role for TAs that begins to break away from what is often called the ‘Velcro’ model of support for pupils with high-level SEN, and which our research has revealed to have unintended consequences.
Instead, MITA schools have been exploring the enormous potential of using TAs to help all pupils develop the essential skills underpinning learning, such as the ability to self-scaffold and ask themselves the questions that help them to get better at getting better at learning.
The broader point here is that understanding why pupils targeted for TA support are negatively affected by the very intervention designed to help them, and how to reverse this situation, is essential if school leaders are to ensure TAs’ contribution to school life seriously counts.
This conclusion is hardly unique. A raft of research attests to why headteachers must drive – not dodge – school workforce issues. So a particularly encouraging outcome of the MITA programme from our point of view (as researchers and course providers) is the way in which headteachers have engaged and committed to doing something positive and potentially transformative for their TA workforce.
The effort is paying off too, as schools began to see the benefits of addressing the key challenge of defining the role, purpose and contribution of TAs within their school.
Given the Government says it has “no plans or any powers” to address issues of TA employment, it is encouraging to see schools seizing the initiative and using the freedoms they have been given to set the agenda. It is still early days, but empowering headteachers in this way might potentially have an even greater payoff.
No jurisdiction in the world has gone as far as the UK in its use of classroom support staff. If we are to realise the Government’s aim of keeping pace with international education systems, TAs’ contribution will be essential. The prize awaiting the UK, then, is to become a world leader in this area.
MITA courses begin at the IOE on 17th November 2014 and 23rd January 2015. To register, email firstname.lastname@example.org.