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The guide on the side: realising the value of teaching assistants

Blog Editor, IOE Digital23 November 2012

Rob Webster, Peter Blatchford and Anthony Russell
What does it mean to be educated? What does an educated person look like? These worthy questions were the subjects of debate at the recent IOE-hosted, London Festival of Education, and, unsurprisingly, teachers were central to responses.
The role of the teacher in shaping young minds, developing rounded individuals, and inspiring the great and the good is long established – and no doubt responsible for motivating subsequent generations to rise to the challenge of a career in teaching.
What is less often discussed, however, is what role the second largest group of school staff – teaching assistants (TAs) – can do to support the learning and development of children and young people.
TAs are an integral part of classroom life, comprising 25% of the school workforce. Yet our earlier Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project has shown that school leaders and teachers do not make the most of this valued resource. In fact, the more support pupils received from TAs, the less academic progress they make.
Importantly though, it is not decisions made by the TAs, but decisions made by school leaders and teachers about how TAs are used and prepared which best explain these provocative results.
Michael Barber’s popular aphorism, “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers”, is a helpful reminder that it’s people that make the difference in education, but their effectiveness can be constrained by factors beyond their control. We might, then, say that the effectiveness of TAs cannot exceed the quality of their deployment and preparation.
Schools, we argue, must fundamentally rethink how they deploy and prepare TAs if they are to get the best use from them in helping pupils. But there’s a third factor.
We’ve known for years that the quality of verbal interactions between teachers and pupils is at the heart of effective teaching and learning. But little attention has been given to interactions between TAs and pupils.
Our research shows that pupils are far more likely to have active and sustained interactions with a TA than they are with a teacher, but when they do, TAs’ talk focuses far more on task completion than learning and understanding.
Given the opportunity that TAs have for quality interactions with pupils, schools should think carefully about how TAs’ talk can contribute to the broad aims of producing confident young people, able to thrive in an uncertain future.
Defining a new role for TAs – one that can add value to what teachers do – was the basis for our collaborative Effective Deployment of TAs project. We found that a particularly productive starting point for rethinking the TA role was in terms of developing pupils’ independent thinking skills; to inculcate a particular habit of mind that helps pupils to figure out what to do when they don’t know what to do.
Our research shows that problems occur when TAs find themselves in a pedagogical role for which they have not been adequately prepared. Crucially, a role as the ‘guide on the side’ is less about teaching and more about helping pupils to internalise and practise valuable skills of self-sufficiency. What’s more, these skills are transferable; TAs can reinforce them across the curriculum.
The results of our study showed that schools achieved marked and productive changes to the ways TAs were deployed and prepared, and how they interacted with pupils.
We have captured how schools achieved this in our new book, Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants, which presents well-informed guidance and classroom-tested strategies on how to unleash the huge potential of TAs.
If school leaders explicitly set out a vision for role and purpose of TAs, and properly prepare and support them, we believe they can make a significant contribution to the way pupils learn and achieve. Perhaps, in years to come, pupils will not only talk fondly of how teachers inspired them and gave them self-belief, but of how teaching assistants did too.
Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants: Guidance for school leaders and teachers, by Anthony Russell, Rob Webster and Peter Blatchford, is published on 23rd November 2012 by Routledge.
To find out about a short course on this theme at the IOE click here
For more, visit www.schoolsupportstaff.net