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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


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 (more…)

It’s official: school budget cuts have finally caught up with teaching assistants

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 28 June 2018

Rob Webster
The latest school workforce statistics, released by the Dept for Education, confirm what survey after survey have been telling us for months: schools are losing their TAs.
The government started publishing school workforce data 21 years ago. This is the first time the annual count of TAs has been lower than the previous year. The downward trend observed in secondary schools has reached primary and nursery settings – where 67% of England’s TA workforce are based – tipping the overall balance.
The table below summarises (more…)

Is the solution to the teacher supply crisis already in our classrooms?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 10 June 2016

Rob Webster. 
This week, The Economist carried an article on how education systems globally are improving the quality of teaching by looking inside “the ‘black box of the production process’ – or what others might call the classroom’.” It concludes with the line: “The answer, after all, was in the classroom”.
The classroom, it seems, is where many other solutions to other dilemmas lie – including how education in England will transform itself into a self-improving, school-led system. The recent white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, pulls no punches in setting out an agenda for systemic change. As Chris Husbands writes, it’s a plan that will usher in “a radical new education structure”, much of which was put in place by Ms Morgan’s Conservative forebears.
Small state conservatism demands that schools alone become the drivers of educational (more…)

The power of talk: how teaching assistants can boost pupils’ independence and learning

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 8 September 2015

 Rob Webster, Paula Bosanquet and Julie Radford
Schools are increasingly using research evidence to inform their strategic and day-to-day practice. A key resource is the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Consistently top of the EEF’s list of ‘what works’ are teacher feedback and strategies relating to metacognition. Evidence suggests pupils could make up to eight months’ additional progress if such approaches are successfully implemented.
A bonus of embedding these techniques is that they tend to be very cost-effective, offering schools sizeable value for money compared with, say, one-to-one tuition (currently fourth on the EEF’s chart).
One of the less cost-effective investments schools could make, according to the Toolkit, is teaching assistants (TAs). Evidence suggests schools could gain just one month of additional progress from spending on TAs. However, the evidence on impact is (more…)

The freedom to make decisions about teaching assistants is nothing new, but now school leaders have the means to unlock their potential

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 27 February 2015

Rob Webster
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 (more…)

How headteachers are maximising the impact of teaching assistants and getting results

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 5 September 2014

Rob Webster
Recent Government data reveal the rise and rise of teaching assistants. Headcount figures show there are more TAs working in English state-funded primary schools than teachers: 257,300 vs. 242,300. In secondary schools, there are 70,700 TAs to 257,300 teachers.
While these numbers reflect the part-time nature of the role, they strengthen the case for professionalising these valued members of the school workforce.
This year, our SENJIT@IOE team worked with 26 schools in the inaugural Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) programme, supporting them through a process of rethinking and reforming their use of TAs. MITA is based on the principles and processes set out in our book of the same name, which in turn is based on findings from an extensive research programme.
Through MITA, we present a case for more effective uses of TAs, which schools apply and develop in their own setting. The programme gives school leaders and SENCos dedicated opportunities to think, reflect, discuss and plan, with sessions at the IOE and consultancy visits from an expert MITA Facilitator from the SENJIT team.
Our evaluation of the two-term project, based on feedback from participating schools, found that despite starting from different points, all schools made progress towards understanding and addressing the complex issues of rethinking the TA role and raising their profile in school.
Participants told us one of MITA’s strengths is the way it is structured around a robust evidence-informed framework for decision-making and action, based on empirical research. The framework helped participants appreciate the need for the deep structural changes that the research has revealed is essential if TAs are to have a lasting and meaningful impact on pupil outcomes.
MITA helped school leaders think more broadly about the issues relating to TA deployment, preparedness and their interactions with pupils (the MITA trinity!). Whilst schools identify training for TAs as an area of attention, on its own, it is no sliver bullet. For example, schools recognised that the need for change in relation to improving provision for pupils with SEN extended beyond TAs to improving teachers’ practice.
Indeed, the new Special Educational Needs Code of Practice proved a powerful additional catalyst for change. This is no coincidence; one of MITA’s key aims is, as the Code supports, to encourage schools to develop a role for TAs that begins to break away from what is often called the ‘Velcro’ model of support for pupils with high-level SEN, and which our research has revealed to have unintended consequences.
Instead, MITA schools have been exploring the enormous potential of using TAs to help all pupils develop the essential skills underpinning learning, such as the ability to self-scaffold and ask themselves the questions that help them to get better at getting better at learning.
The broader point here is that understanding why pupils targeted for TA support are negatively affected by the very intervention designed to help them, and how to reverse this situation, is essential if school leaders are to ensure TAs’ contribution to school life seriously counts.
This conclusion is hardly unique. A raft of research attests to why headteachers must drive – not dodge – school workforce issues. So a particularly encouraging outcome of the MITA programme from our point of view (as researchers and course providers) is the way in which headteachers have engaged and committed to doing something positive and potentially transformative for their TA workforce.
The effort is paying off too, as schools began to see the benefits of addressing the key challenge of defining the role, purpose and contribution of TAs within their school.
Given the Government says it has “no plans or any powers” to address issues of TA employment, it is encouraging to see schools seizing the initiative and using the freedoms they have been given to set the agenda. It is still early days, but empowering headteachers in this way might potentially have an even greater payoff.
No jurisdiction in the world has gone as far as the UK in its use of classroom support staff. If we are to realise the Government’s aim of keeping pace with international education systems, TAs’ contribution will be essential. The prize awaiting the UK, then, is to become a world leader in this area.
MITA courses begin at the IOE on 17th November 2014 and 23rd January 2015. To register, email r.webster@ioe.ac.uk.
Visit www.maximisingTAs.co.uk or the SENJIT website. Follow us on Twitter @maximisingTAs.

TAs: only a research-policy-practice trialogue will lead to evidence-based policy-making

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 17 June 2014

Rob Webster
The economists are at it again!
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.
The rationale was based on findings from our Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project, which found that children who received the most support from TAs consistently made less progress than similar pupils who received less TA support – even after controlling for factors like prior attainment and level of special educational need (SEN).
Thankfully, the recommendation to axe TAs got short shrift from the DfE. Not so fortunate the elementary school system in North Carolina, USA.
Last month, the state Senate proposed a $21.2 billion budget plan, $470 million of which will pay for an average 11% pay rise for teachers. Half the funds for this, however, will come from cutting the equivalent of 7,400 TA jobs – all but eliminating TAs in second and third grades (7-9 years).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this decision – expected to be ratified by lawmakers by 30 June – has sparked petitions and protests. A local educationalist likened the situation to paying for a liver transplant by selling a kidney!
The context for the controversy is on-going attempts by politicians to improve educational standards in North Carolina. Echoing the conclusions of the Reform report, State Senate leader Phil Berger said achieving this is about using research evidence to prioritise resources: ‘to target our dollars to those things that are shown to improve student growth’. For Berger, this means making teaching financially more appealing in a state where attracting and retaining high quality teachers has been a perennial problem.
Reliance on the inconclusive research evidence on the effect of teacher pay on educational standards to inform policy is worrying. So to hear too that, with an eerie sense of déjà-vu, it turns out a partial reading of the DISS project findings has also been used to justify the proposals, should raise questions about politicians’ use of empirical research and their proclaimed fondness for evidence-based policy.
It cannot be avoided that high amounts of TA support has unintended consequences for pupils, especially for those with SEN, but our research is very clear about the reasons. It is decisions made by school leaders and teachers about – not by – TAs, in terms of their deployment and preparation that best explain the DISS results. This vital message seems to have bypassed state legislators.
As my colleagues and I never tire pointing out, the DISS results do not suggest that getting rid of TAs will improve outcomes, if all other factors remain equal; if anything, it will create more problems.
Teachers in North Carolina may be about to see their salaries increase and – as Berger and others in the Senate acknowledge – their jobs transform, but with no additional teachers coming into the system, plans to reduce class sizes dropped, no proposals to ensure teachers are not overworked or receive training to help them work with children with special needs, they will earn every single dollar.
For all the talk of basing policy decisions on research evidence, the situation in North Carolina is another example of the kind of poorly planned and expensive experiments with pupils’ learning and adults’ careers and well-being that are becoming worryingly commonplace in public education systems the world over.
These revelations from across the Atlantic should be troubling for the research community too. Just recently Louise Stoll and Chris Brown wrote on this blog about collaborative models of knowledge exchange in education: efforts to translate and transfer research findings into practical tools and strategies for practitioners.
A team of us at the IOE are currently developing our own model of knowledge mobilisation based on the work we’ve undertaken with schools on our Maximising the Impact of TAs programme.
Our experience has been that these two-way efforts between schools and universities can be extremely fruitful and mutually beneficial to the processes of teaching and research. Yet the essential need for policymakers to be involved in the process of converting knowledge into policy and practice is writ large over the events in North Carolina.
Selective readings and misrepresentations of research evidence by detached decision-makers of findings from hard won (often taxpayer-funded) empirical research, which is dependent on co-operation with and contributions from busy practitioners working in high-pressure environments, poses a threat to the trust between researchers and educators that underpins collaborative research and development – not to mention the relationship that each group has with the public.
Only recently has the UK Government clarified its somewhat ‘hands-off’ position on TAs. Whilst there is obvious appeal in giving school leaders autonomy to make their own staffing decisions, given the vast sums of public money involved in employing TAs and the high stakes nature of education generally, it seems a rather relaxed approach.
Our emerging model of knowledge mobilisation recognises the essential need for policymakers’ participation in turning the research-practice dialogue, into a research-policy-practice trialogue. Their willingness to engage would be a clear commitment to their much-vaunted faith in evidence-informed policy and practice.
Rob Webster is a research associate at the Institute of Education and freelance consultant/trainer. He is grateful to Andy Curliss of The News & Observer, North Carolina, for bringing this story to his attention.

Be careful what you wish for: parents, professionals and the new SEN system

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 19 March 2014

 Rob Webster
The long-awaited Children and Families Bill has now achieved Royal Assent, paving the way for new reforms that will overhaul how the needs of children and young people with special educational needs (SEN) are assessed and met.
In September, a new accompanying Code of Practice comes into force, initiating a three-year process of replacing SEN Statements for those with the highest level of need with more comprehensive Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).
Families deserve a responsive and efficient SEN system. The changes to statutory assessment (the process leading to an EHCP), which expressly places the child at the centre of consultations with local authorities (LAs), were prompted by, and are designed to address, long-standing concerns relating to parents’ expectations and confidence in the SEN system.
However, parents are still likely to enter the assessment process in the hope of securing one-to-one support from a teaching assistant (TA) – particularly when their child’s needs can be met in a mainstream school. Under the outgoing system, support is quantified in  TA hours. Many agree ‘TA hours’ are the accepted currency of Statements, and as things stand, are likely to feature in the new EHCPs.
With the best of intentions, schools have sustained arrangements heavily reliant on TAs in the name of inclusive practice. The new Code of Practice, however, suggests a move away from the widespread ‘default model’ of one-to-one TA support. It emphasises the significance of ‘high quality teaching’ and gives a coded warning about how ‘special education provision…is compromised by anything less’.
Behind this warning appear to be findings from the recent Making a Statement study (which I co-directed with Peter Blatchford) on the day-to-day teaching and support for pupils with high-level SEN. We tracked 48 Statemented pupils in mainstream primary schools and found they had a qualitatively different educational experience compared with their non-SEN peers, characterised by having fewer interactions with teachers and classmates, and almost constant and lower quality support from a TA.
Put together with results from our previous research, which found that pupils with high-level SEN receiving the most TA support made significantly less academic progress than similar pupils who received little or no TA support (even after controlling for SEN), we see a worrying trend: pupils with Statements are negatively affected by the very intervention intended to help them.
The new Code is encouraging, as it reinforces how every teacher is responsible and accountable for the development and progress of every pupil in their class. TAs have a very useful role to play in making this work in practice, but it also requires a fundamental rethink about how schools manage teaching and provision for vulnerable learners, and how they ‘do’ inclusion.
For me, more needs to be done to manage expectations when families – hoping for the magic bullet of TA hours – start the statutory assessment process. SENCos, educational psychologists and new SEN ‘champions’ (among others) have a crucial role to play here, as these are the people with whom families tend to deal with first when a request for assessment is sought.
Their work and training must reflect the research evidence that provides a clear warning of persisting with the dominant, TA-heavy model of provision, and (depending on the professional) provide alternative guidance in the form of appropriate and effective pedagogical techniques.
None of this is to say that parents should ‘get real’ and accept whatever cash-strapped LAs can afford; nor that most parents have unreasonable expectations of the SEN system. The key issue is that, from the very start, those working in the best interests of the child need to do more to help parents understand that the quality of support their child receives really is more important than the quantity, and propose arrangements that follow this principle.
Statutory assessment is a rigorous and evidence-based process. The new SEN reforms make it incumbent on educationalists to approach SEN provision in the same manner.
For more on the research, visit www.teachingassistantresearch.co.uk.

Addressing the bigger picture on teaching assistant interventions

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 12 February 2014

Peter Blatchford
It is good to hear the positive results from new studies, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation, showing that interventions carried out by teaching assistants (TAs) with small groups helped improve children’s results in the 3Rs. In fact these results are consistent with earlier research, going back many years, which evaluated the use of TAs for specific interactions, usually in literacy.
These findings are welcome given the troubling results from the large scale Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) study, which I directed. We found clear evidence from a sophisticated longitudinal programme involving more than 8000 pupils that the more support pupils received from TAs over the school year the less progress they made. This was the case even when we controlled for ‘pupil factors’ such as children’s prior attainment and their level of special educational need (SEN).
I have often been asked how we can reconcile the two sets of seemingly contradictory results ­– i.e. the negative findings from DISS and the positive ones from specific interventions.
I think the explanation is clear. While the intervention studies relate to specific outcomes from a targeted programme in which TAs have been trained for the job, the DISS study was concerned with how TAs were used on a daily basis across the whole curriculum and school day.
It is no surprise that TAs, when appropriately trained, can produce positive effects, but the DISS study was also clear that for the most part TAs are not used in this way. We found that TAs were typically used in an informal remedial role with low attaining pupils and pupils with special educational needs. This support was an alternative to teacher input, not additional to it, and the pupils supported by TAs missed out on interactions with their teachers.
We also found that TAs were often under-prepared for their role – often going into lessons ‘blind’ – and had received little guidance or training. In more recent studies, my colleagues Rob Webster and Tony Russell and I have found that this deployment of TAs is still common. The problem, then, is not TAs as such, but ways in which TAs are used in schools.
Although the EEF funded research is welcome, there are a few well known problems with ‘pull-out’ interventions that need to be carefully considered when TAs are used to carry them out. If, as is the case in the EEF studies, interventions are assessed in terms of specific academic outcomes related to the literacy or numeracy intervention, they can be found to successful. But in our studies we have found that pupils are often withdrawn from the classroom for interventions and as a result become detached from the teacher, the classroom, their classmates and the curriculum. One therefore needs to account for the lost and disrupted coverage as well as the gains during the intervention.
A connected point concerns the extent to which what is learned during the intervention is connected back to the pupils’ broader experiences of the curriculum. We have found that interventions are often quite separate from classroom activities and there is relatively little communication or feedback between the TA and teacher afterwards. This meant it was often left to the pupils themselves to make any links with their mainstream curriculum coverage. Given that supported pupils were usually those with the most difficulties this was a huge challenge for them. The integration of the specific intervention and mainstream curriculum coverage is therefore vital.
But the main problem is that training TAs for specific interventions does not on its own provide an answer to the ineffective way in which they have been deployed in schools. Schools need to fundamentally rethink the way they use TAs on an everyday basis. Otherwise, their enormous potential will not be fully realised.
Our key message is this: TAs should be used to add value to teachers not replace them. Our book ‘Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants’ sets out strategies for schools and classroom and highlights three areas for development:.

  • We need to rethink the deployment of TAs so they are not given primary responsibility for pupils in most need. For instance, rotating groups can allow teachers to spend more time with such pupils.
  • We need to rethink the preparedness of TAs (and teachers) so they have more time to communicate and have more professional development, especially for pupils with SEN.
  • And we need to work on the way TAs talk to pupils, for example developing effective styles of questioning in support of pupil independent learning.

All of these are a challenge and all involve tough decisions, but we have found in our work with schools that huge progress is being made, and this contributes to school improvement more broadly.

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.