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Five reasons why any government should think twice about getting rid of teaching assistants

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 4 June 2013

Rob Webster

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.



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10 Responses to “Five reasons why any government should think twice about getting rid of teaching assistants”

  • 1
    bishopofgrimsby wrote on 4 June 2013:

    More sound sense from the IoE team. Let’s hope that those who will make the final decision on where the axe will fall next have the sense to read this blog. The current fashion within the DfE (or is it the Treasury, as reported in the Sunday Times this week?) for teaching assistants to be pilloried, (largely on the basis of Sutton Trust and EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit no doubt), mystifies me, given the fact that Ofsted, in its latest report on Pupil Premium, devoted a section entirely to the exemplary use of TAs in raising attainment, as well as a section focusing on other support staff and their ability to minimise barriers to learning and achievement. Perhaps, as has been argued by both parties I believe, the DfE and Ofsted really do not communicate. Maybe they should start doing so if educational leaders are to determine with any real clarity what the strategic direction of their schools and academies will be.

  • 2
    Huw Humphreys wrote on 5 June 2013:

    This is a sound argument, in my view. However, we need urgently to make the distinction between the impact of TAs on direct achievement by pupils, which the Sutton report toolkit and John Hattie’s Visible Learning studies suggest is only any good when TAs are directly involved in the planning of lessons, and their effect on learning – both social and intellectual. Too much of the current debate is focused solely on raising standards in schools and not in preparing children to be effective learners and contributors to the communities they will live in. For this to take place, much of what children gain will not be taught by teachers, and we would want representatives of community and motherhood (especially) to be present in schools. For this, TAs serve an admirable purpose, over and above everything else they do for our children.

  • 3
    anita wrote on 7 June 2013:

    Rob Webster’s defence of my job and over 300,000 like it is much more robust than that of Peter Blatchford’s previous attempt, which left me rather angry; you are responsible for letting this particular cat out of the bag. Even though I agree with the findings, you, as its authors, have a moral obligation to shout loud and clear that it is simply not good enough for this penny-pinching think tank to cherry-pick some of your findings to support their erroneous claims, and Peter Blatchford failed to do so. Can I also state that the latest new “initiative” in placing ex-service personnel in the classroom after a mere 2 years teacher training, irrespective of whether they have a degree or not is simply another slap in the face for support staff: “Life experience” would appear to be a selling point for the services as far as Michael Gove is concerned, but what then of the life experience of the army of women already in place, with countless years of on-the-job experience which will go to waste if this government and think tank get their way?
    Incidentally, I am in my final year of study for an honours degree, so buck the stated trend among TAs of having limited educational qualifications, but I would still put up my ‘O’ levels earned over 40 years ago against the degrees of some of those teachers currently working who have little general knowledge, scant common sense, and even less experience of the big, wide world!

  • 4
    liz wrote on 12 June 2013:

    You are so right. I finshed my degree last year and am still undecided if to go into teaching. I have twenty years experience working with children plus,a degree which does not seem to hold any valve to this government. T a s teach care and support children not teachers I hate my name of teaching assistant and this is why the government feel they can just shove us,a side like when they got rid of my nursery nurse name and making me work extra hours a week to make up for the hols. Maybe they should make most of these dedicated t a s into teachers instead of tge soldiers as we r in the job for the children its not the money for gods sake. As again and again women and children get pushed a side to save money for a male government of public school boys. This report needs burning and,some needs to have a proper look at the hard work done by most of the teaching assistants yes teaching not teacher assistants out there. I am so cross and upset to be treated and put down in this way no one would do this to any other profession.

  • 5
    markquinn1968 wrote on 7 June 2013:

    What the other guy said. TAs are part of the wider school workforce, and children are the better socialised for working alongside them. And, crucially, whatever Hattie said, TAs do become expert at children.

  • 6
    explorationalsituations wrote on 26 June 2013:

    There is something in addition to be said here about the likelihood of teaching assistants to be local, and to come from class and race demographics which are closer to those of the students than teachers are,especially in deprived areas. This is very important in providing positive role models ( in terms of if there is a predominantly bangladeshi class taught by mainly white, middle class teachers, at best the children learn implicitly that success comes with abandoning their home community and ‘becoming’ white – that upward social mobility is possible, but improved lives for their community is not), and it also points toward the need for TAs to be respected and valued as experts, who can offer a lot of initiative, not just a pair of hands/eyes/voice to repeat the teacher.

  • 7
    Yvonne Lewington (@FG2O) wrote on 9 July 2013:

    Why not get rid of MPs’ assistants?
    I’m sure they’re paid a tad more.

  • 8
    Education in 2014: the year of the teaching assistant? | Edubabble wrote on 8 January 2014:

    […] that such action is not only based on a partial reading of the evidence about impact, but that is likely to do more harm than good for students, teachers and […]

  • 9
    TAs: only a research-policy-practice trialogue will lead to evidence-based policy-making | IOE London blog wrote on 17 June 2014:

    […] This time last year, the Reform think tank outlined cost-saving measures that, it claimed, could be made without damaging pupils’ education. Chief among them was cutting the number of teaching assistants (TAs) in schools. […]

  • 10
    TA Tips wrote on 7 September 2017:

    Teaching assistants play a vital role in the classroom. Regardless of what some people might think – it gives me great joy to help guide our future generation.