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Proceed with caution: unravelling the evidence behind the DFE’s Covid guidance on teaching assistants

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 17 July 2020

Rob Webster.

In the early stages of the UK government’s response to the Coronavirus health emergency, it was common to hear that decisions were ‘being led by the science’. As attention begins to shift to addressing the impact of school closures on the attainment gap, it is essential that schools adopt a similar evidence-based approach.

The DfE’s guidance for the full opening of schools in September contains the following advice for school leaders on deploying teaching assistants (TAs) and other support staff:

“Where support staff capacity is available, schools may consider using this to support catch-up provision or targeted interventions. Teaching assistants may also be deployed to lead groups or cover lessons, under the direction and supervision of a qualified, or nominated, teacher”.

This section of the DfE guidance goes on to point school leaders towards the practical recommendations contained in the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants report. Ordinarily, a link to the EEF’s work in DfE literature is a tacit signal to the reader that the advice being provided is trustworthy, robust and evidence-based. The trouble with this short section of the DfE’s Covid guidance is that while the first suggestion is based on ‘what works’, the second is based on ‘what does not work’.

TA-led interventions

As co-author of the EEF report, I was encouraged to read that schools think about deploying TAs to deliver targeted, structured intervention programmes. As that guidance makes clear:

“The area of research showing the strongest evidence for TAs having a positive impact on pupil attainment focuses on their role in delivering structured interventions in one- to-one or small group settings”.

Deploying TAs in this way is tailor-made for the situation in which schools find themselves: identifying and filling gaps in pupils’ learning after a long lay-off from the classroom. The international evidence on one-on-one and small-group instruction delivered by TAs is remarkably consistent. The EEF alone has funded 12 efficacy trials of TA-led interventions, 10 of which have shown a positive impact. Pupils made, on average, between two and three months additional progress compared to those in a ‘business as usual’ condition.

Given the current focus and funding on tutoring, and the good evidence that TA-led interventions seem to have a particularly positive effect on learning for disadvantaged pupils, I would argue that ‘schools may absolutely should consider using this to support catch-up provision or targeted interventions’.

Leading groups and covering lessons

My optimistic reaction to this part of the DfE’s Covid guidance was, however, commuted on reading the very next sentence, which gives schools the green light to deploy TAs to ‘lead groups or cover lessons’. Even in the exceptional circumstances in which we find ourselves, the idea that TAs should be used in this manner is at odds with the fundamental principle at the heart of the recommendations in the EEF report, and cited in the DfE guidance.

On the basis of what we know from the research evidence, schools should deploy TAs in ways that supplement, not replace, teachers. In essence, use TAs to add value to what teachers do.

Handled correctly – a critical caveat that we unpack in the EEF report – deploying TAs to deliver structured interventions is perhaps the best embodiment of this principle. However, the potential gains from this are at risk if, as the DfE’s guidance invites, schools routinely use TAs as substitute teachers. To see why, we have to go back a few years.

In 2003, the government, local government employers and the majority of the school workforce unions agreed a policy approach to tackle teacher workload called the ‘National Agreement’. Two of the Agreement’s three strategic components aimed to: (i) limit the amount of lesson cover teachers could be expected to do; and (ii) give teachers 10% non-contact time for planning, preparation and assessment. In both cases, the policy encouraged the use of TAs to lead classes ‘under the supervision of a teacher’.

The DfE’s Covid guidance rightly makes the point that “Headteachers should be satisfied that the person [e.g. TA] has the appropriate skills, expertise and experience to carry out the work”. However, a large-scale, longitudinal research study that evaluated the roles and impacts of TAs in the context of the National Agreement – the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project – found that, in practice, TAs working under the supervision of a teacher turned out to be quite meaningless. TAs were, invariably, left to their own devices to plan and run lessons, without guidance from teachers or leaders. And they were let down too, in terms of having little or no training to prepare them for classroom management. Consequently, and through no fault of their own, TA-led lessons were undemanding and often characterised by ‘busy work’.

These ineffective practices were implicated in the headline finding from the DISS project, which revealed serious unintended consequences of ineffective TA deployment and preparation. The more exposure to TA-led teaching and support pupils had, the less time they had with teachers, and – perhaps unsurprisingly – the less progress they made in English, maths and science. This finding was consistent across primary and secondary year groups, and held even when potentially confounding factors characteristics, like prior attainment and special educational needs/disabilities (SEND), were taken into account.

Proceed with caution

To be clear, I am not saying that when schools fully reopen in September, TAs should not be deployed to lead groups or to cover classes. These are, as we are used to hearing by now, unprecedented times. The already-limited cover options for most schools are narrowed further by the DfE’s advice that, while supply staff can move between schools, ‘leaders will want to consider how to minimise the number of visitors to the school where possible’.

School leaders will have to take a pragmatic approach, but the warning from history, provided by the DISS project, makes it clear that they must proceed with caution.

The DfE’s Covid guidance also states that “Any redeployments should not be at the expense of supporting pupils with SEND”.* So, an important consideration for school leaders will be which classes and which groups TAs could be deployed to lead. It flies in the face of everything we know we need to do to avoid compounding the effect of missed learning time for the pupils most disadvantaged by time away school if we routinely deploy unprepared and less-pedagogically skilled (compared with teachers) TAs to run the classes/groups in which they are taught. It denies these pupils much-needed teacher time, and it is also unfair on the TAs who are directed to lead those classes/groups without adequate preparation.

The role of TAs during the lockdown period has been largely overlooked; perhaps because the kind of one-to-one and small group support that characterises their work is difficult to replicate online. However, as we step forward into the new school year, it is becoming clear that TAs are pivotal to the successful delivery of a coordinated ‘catch-up’ strategy, the like of which we have never seen. Capitalising on the contribution of TAs depends on school leaders’ careful interpretation and implementation of the DfE’s Covid guidance, and giving judicious consideration to the evidence on which it is based.

version of this blog post originally appeared in The Psychologist, published by the British Psychological Society

*Natalie Packer, an experienced school leader and former SENCo, has written a useful blog providing practical suggestions about how schools can offer pupils with SEND appropriate learning support within the parameters of the DfE Covid guidance, including how TAs could be deployed in and across teaching ‘bubbles’. School leaders should consider these ideas in the context of Recommendations 1 to 4 in the EEF TA report.

Photo of Crossacres Primary School copyright Infinite3D Ltd via Creative Commons



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One Response to “Proceed with caution: unravelling the evidence behind the DFE’s Covid guidance on teaching assistants”

  • 1
    Julie Furnell wrote on 29 August 2020:

    Yay plan and lead a class on £8.91 an hour which is what I’ve done in my role. What’s not to love?