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The ineffective use of TAs must be addressed

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A few months back, I wrote on this very blog about the pressures facing teaching assistants (TAs). While most of the post was plunged in a pessimistic fog, it ended with a shining beacon of hope by optimistically looking forward to the release of new national standards for TAs.

As I’m sure you know, this optimism was misplaced: the Department for Education (DfE) decided against publishing the standards. Instead, using an all too familiar approach, the government argued that schools are “best placed to decide how they use and deploy teaching assistants and to set standards for the teaching assistants they employ”.

Unfortunately, this argument isn’t backed up by evidence. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) explains that while TAs can have a positive impact on learning, they very often don’t. This isn’t the fault of the TAs themselves: it's due to them not being deployed in a way that maximises their impact on pupils’ outcomes.

This doesn’t have to be the case. The EEF points out:

Research ... demonstrates that when [TAs] are well-trained and used in structured settings with high-quality support and training, they can boost learning by as much as an extra term.

Very helpfully, the EEF has published a report that sets out seven recommendations of how you can make this happen with the TAs in your school. Each recommendation is based on evidence and is written in a simple and practical way.

Organisations like the EEF are a positive influence on the sector, and can shed light on what the evidence recommends. But shouldn’t it be the responsibility of the DfE to lend support and governmental gravitas to these recommendations?

By failing to acknowledge that many schools aren’t deploying TAs effectively, the DfE’s decision that schools are best placed to decide how to use them misses the EEF’s point.

This needs to be addressed. We know that TAs form 25% of the school workforce, but we aren’t making the most of what could be a truly excellent resource. Their potential is, on the whole, untapped.

With the lack of professional standards for TAs, is there a risk that we'll maintain a status quo that negatively affects TAs, schools and pupils? National standards could have helped turn the tide by capturing the very best practice from across the country and distilling and sharing it for the benefit of every child in our education system.

I also wonder whether the lack of national standards has a symbolic effect. Does it damage the standing of TAs in schools? Will they feel that their role, unlike that of the teachers they share a classroom with, is not worthy of professional standards?

It seems to me like an added insult to a sector of the education workforce that remains underpaid and under pressure, and it doesn't do justice to the hard work of the thousands of TAs working in classrooms across the country. With more effective deployment, however, their hard work could make a real difference.

Members of The Key for School Leaders can log in to read our article about research into the effective use of teaching assistants.


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