Peter Blatchford and Rob Webster
The government has announced plans that could change the way schools manage provision for some of the most vulnerable pupils. Both the injection of cash for pupils on free school meals via the Pupil Premium and the plan to give parents of pupils with a statement of special educational needs (SEN) control over their child’s SEN budget are part of the coalition’s drive to give schools and parents the power and resources to fund the expert support they need to progress.
Of course, the groups of pupils at whom these two funding sources are targeted are not the same, though they do overlap: the government’s own data show that pupils with a statement for SEN are twice as likely to be eligible for free school meals as their peers.
Much has been made of the devolution of power from the centre in the drive to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, for example, made a virtue of the freedom headteachers have to spend the £488 per child Pupil Premium. He wants to see schools innovate, then publicise the most effective strategies.
Over the last 15 years, teaching assistants (TAs) have become a central part of policy and practice in meeting the needs of lower-attaining pupils and those with SEN. Over this period, TAs have grown to comprise a quarter of the UK mainstream school workforce. The general sense is that using TAs to provide one-to-one and small group support to struggling pupils works well, and it is likely that schools will seek to extend this through the Pupil Premium. However, our research offers a word of caution.
Results first published in 2009 and described in our new book, Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants: How Research Challenges Practice and Policy, raise concerns about the impact of TA support on pupils’ academic progress.
Our five-year study, the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project (the largest study of TAs worldwide) measured the effect of the amount of TA support on the academic progress of 8,200 pupils, while controlling for factors like prior attainment and level of SEN. Worryingly, our analyses across seven year groups found that those who received the most support from TAs consistently made less progress than similar pupils who received less TA support.
So, are we suggesting that schools and parents look elsewhere to invest their funds? Far from it. Blaming TAs would, in our view, be wrong. As other results from the DISS project show, it is the decisions made about – not by – TAs, in terms of their deployment and preparation, which are at fault.
We found that there has been a drift towards TAs becoming, in effect, the primary educators of lower-attaining pupils and those with SEN. Teachers like this arrangement because they can then teach the rest of the class, in the knowledge that the children in most need get more individual attention. But the more support pupils get from TAs, the less they get from teachers. What is more, our detailed analysis of classroom talk showed that compared to teachers, TAs’ talk to pupils tends to focus on task completion rather than developing understanding – most likely as a result of having limited opportunities to meet with teachers before lessons.
The government has not ringfenced Pupil Premium cash, but it will – via Ofsted and league tables – hold schools accountable for how it is spent. Our view – outlined in Reassessing the Impact of TAs – is that schools must undertake a fundamental rethink of the purpose and role of TAs if they are to get the best use from TAs and help disadvantaged pupils.
To this end we have been conducting a follow up study, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, in which we have been collaborating with schools to develop and evaluate strategies for improving the use of TAs. The results of this research, which to date are extremely positive, will feature in a future blog.