Over the last five years, schools in England have been granted an unprecedented level of freedom. An increasing number of state schools now decide for themselves which children are admitted, the curriculum they follow, who to appoint to teach it, and how much they will be paid.
The professional architecture governing teachers’ qualifications and training, performance management, promotion, pay, contracts and conditions of work has been loosened in ways that will already be familiar to the 369,700 teaching assistants (TAs) employed in English schools.
There has never been agreement on entry qualifications for TAs, consistently applied professional standards, or a national pay and conditions framework. The most recent effort to achieve the latter was halted because it did not ‘fit well with the [coalition] Government’s priorities for greater deregulation of the pay and conditions arrangements for the school workforce’.
About 25 years ago, headteachers began offering parent-helpers paid roles as TAs. This volunteer role tended to be held by women with few or no formal qualifications, and their contracted hours of work were in line with the school day. Though there are many more graduates in TA roles today, recruitment and appointment practices still persist that no longer serve the needs of schools.
As for the actual role itself, what TAs do in classrooms has historically been somewhat ill-defined. Well-meaning attempts by government to clarify and agree concepts, such as the ‘specified work’ TAs can do ‘under the supervision of a teacher’, ran into trouble because there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.
Yet the absence of a shared organisational vision leads to variation and inconsistencies in how effectively teachers deploy TAs within the same school. Lack of purpose gives no focus to CPD arrangements for individual TAs too.
Top-down edicts setting out what TAs should and shouldn’t do have been difficult to achieve – and in any case, may be undesirable. But laissez-faire arrangements, where schools are encouraged to find local solutions to local problems, have also been problematic because the issue is so open-ended: where does one start?
What we can do though is use the evidence of what does and doesn’t work to inform school leaders’ decision-making about TA deployment. This can, at least, provide a starting point. Also, we can look to the profession itself to shape frameworks that help define and support strategic goals.
Into this vacuum then arrive the Department for Education’s new professional standards for TAs and new practical guidance Peter Blatchford and I have co-authored with Jonathan Sharples at the Education Endowment Foundation.
Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants has been written to help school leaders make sense of, and act on, the research evidence on TA impact. We have drawn together findings from a wide range of research on how TAs are used in everyday classrooms and to deliver structured interventions, and developed key actionable recommendations for maximising TAs’ impact on pupil achievement.
If the guidance encourages school leaders to use the freedoms they have to reform, rethink, repurpose and reenergise their TA workforce (in other words, to decide what TAs should do), then the new TA standards – written by an expert panel of practitioners – have an important role to play in helping to determine the skills, knowledge and experience required of those in the role (i.e. what TAs should be).
Our extensive research and on-going work with schools shows that making best use of TAs is a school leadership issue. School leaders need to put pupils’ needs at the heart of a review of current practice and to think through ways of strategically deploying TAs across the school to ensure that pupils receive the best possible educational experience.
Taken together, the TA standards and our accessible guidance provide frameworks and practical suggestions for transforming the way TAs are deployed and supported, and to help them both thrive in their role and improve outcomes for pupils.
Rob Webster tweets @maximisingTAs. He will be talking on this topic at the London Festival of Education at the Institute of Education on Saturday 28th February.
Click here to download Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants.