EEF Blog: Three crucial questions for schools wanting to support the impact of teaching assistants

The EEF's learning behaviours specialist, Kirsten Mould - a serving secondary school leader and SENCo - emphasises the vital role of teaching assistants in ensuring that all students are supported to achieve well in these unprecedented times. 

Teaching assistants (TAs) play a vital role in the engine-room of school life. They link so much at the heart of pupils’ school experience, from day-to-day relationships with pupils, along with professional partnerships with teachers and, in many cases, parents and care-givers.

When you support a well-trained TA team - who attend whole school CPD, who share practice regularly, who feel valued and heard - they can have a powerful impact in school. Through unsettled times, TAs have offered an important contribution to support pupils and families. 

I remember the first week of lock-down at my school with vivid clarity. 

We sat with our list of most vulnerable pupils and ‘key’ pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). How were we going to encourage self-regulation of routines, link them to teachers, support with learning, and keep reading as a focus? 

We quickly developed a system of linked TAs with scripted email, phone supports, and online protocols to start to build remote relationships.

Our to-do list grew, but so did the strength of relationships with families and connectedness of pupils with their learning. Our TA team initiated packages of quarantined reading books, one-to-one reading with our EAL pupils took place online over Microsoft Teams, and much more besides. Relationships grew stronger than ever before with pupils and families.

The national role of TAs

In November 2019, there were the full-time equivalent of 945,805 people working in state-funded schools in England. Of these, 453,813 were teachers and 265,167 were teaching assistants. And yet, despite the limited discussion around their role, many continue to be essential communicators with our most disadvantaged pupils and pupils with SEND.

Recently, Rob Webster (May, 2019) reminded us that TAs are one of the biggest investments we make in provision for pupils with SEND and those eligible for Pupil Premium funding. Additionally, Nathalie Packer (July, 2020) discussed the impact of Department for Education guidance stating that, where support staff capacity is available, schools may deploy TAs to provide lesson cover (under the direction of a teacher). 

This sets us a challenging tension, and one that schools continue to wrestle with due to reduced staffing capacity. Professional judgement and local circumstances prove key.

Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants

Guidance to help primary and secondary schools make the best use of TAs

Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants Download PDF get_app

To help support schools, and TAs, the EEF's report on Making the Best Use of Teaching Assistants offers useful guidance. Three crucial questions emerge from the evidence:

1. If TAs have a direct teaching role, can they supplement rather than replace the teacher? (Recommendations 2 and 7)

TAs can make crucial connections and link learning. Schools have been breaking away from the ‘Velcro’ model of support, focusing on the quality of interactions. TAs are finding creative ways to dip in and out of supporting pupils, team teaching with the teacher, using a visualiser, or using whiteboards for vocabulary work, whilst deploying structured task plans and checklists. Scaffolding learning to intervene appropriately, whilst considering safe distancing, can be done.

2. How can teachers provide essential ‘need to knows’ ahead of time, so that TAs don’t go to lessons blind? (Recommendation 4)

Do our classroom routines and teacher conversations take into account this preparedness for TAs? We might nod enthusiastically in ‘normal times’, but daily staffing decisions being made in schools at the moment lead to this creating real challenge. With the agility required by school leaders to cover bubbles, can we still find ways to support TAs who take on this role? Please do share your insights about how TAs are being deployed in your school this year by completing our short survey, Supporting pupils with SEND.

EEF email series - Supporting pupils with SEND

EEF email series - Supporting pupils with SEND

Direct to your inbox - five evidence-based recommendations to support pupils with SEND, providing a starting point for schools to review their current approach and practical ideas they can implement.

3. How can TAs best deliver high-quality 1-to-1 interventions this term? (Recommendations 5 and 6)

Many schools are pressing pause, assessing, and reintroducing interventions carefully. We know that high-quality teaching is the most important lever schools have to raise attainment of our most disadvantaged pupils. But where appropriate, after tuning into needs, schools have access to supporting in-school academic mentors and evidence-based intervention such as the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI). Both these examples come with government funding and can be used by schools to add to their existing intervention provision.

Sustaining the impact of Teaching Assistants

So, what happens if we experience sudden local lock-downs?

TAs can assume the role of link adult. They prove a central point of contact to answer learning questions, encourage routines at home, and to support with reading. If this is new to your TA team, scripted conversations might be needed as a support, including clear safeguarding guidelines and channels of communication. The results can be powerful for behaviour and for the sense of connectedness for everyone involved.

Of course, TA deployment is an implementation challenge against the backdrop of safety logistics and staff capacity. Effective deployment will require interactions between school leadership, the SENCo, teachers, and TAs. Instead of cogs left spinning in space, TAs need to be supported with training even when time and capacity is limited.

Let’s celebrate this and talk about the impact of TAs and how they are vital in the engine-room of every school.