Teaching assistants (TAs) play an integral role in the daily workings of a school. They are crucial sources of support for teachers and learners alike, but the evidence around their impact on pupil attainment is undoubtedly mixed.
On one hand, the research indicates that targeted TA deployment, in which teaching assistants deliver structured interventions, can positively impact progress. In contrast, the evidence around the effectiveness of general deployment in the classroom is much less promising – research from the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit shows that there is no evidence of positive impact on attainment.
However, it is important to note that high-quality studies examining the impact of typical TA deployment are scarce, and few programmes provide a rigorously evaluated approach to supporting TAs and improving the ways in which they are deployed.
The EEF sought to test the effectiveness of the MITA programme, a whole-school training and consultancy programme, in order to meet the need for more evidence in this area. MITA focuses on three aspects of general classroom deployment:
- Who TAs and teachers support – TAs spend less time with pupils who need the most support and teachers spend more time with these pupils, to increase access to high quality teaching for all pupils
- How TAs deliver pupil support – TAs provide the least help first, to reduce overdependence
- How TAs and teachers interact – TAs and teachers engage in feedback and planning, so TAs can better support teachers to deliver high quality teaching.
The aim is that in supporting TAs to refine these key areas of their practice, pupil’s access to high quality teaching, and levels of engagement, will increase. These then would subsequently lead to a positive impact on pupil attainment.
We conducted a cluster randomised controlled trial (cRCT) with 128 primary schools in England in order to test this hypothesis.
The findings from the evaluation suggest that in schools receiving the programme, MITA did lead to positive changes in TAs’ practice. Teachers and TAs increasingly reported that they had scheduled time each week for communication. TAs also reported spending much less time with pupils who struggle most. However, surprisingly, teachers also reported spending less time with these pupils.
It is important to recognise that the security of this finding is limited due a number of factors, such as the small number of schools analysed, mixed response rates, and the use of a new measure which summarises changes to practice into a single figure.
It is also crucial that we recognise the nuance that could be obscured by this overall positive finding.
A central tenet of MITA is that TAs re-orient who they ordinarily spend the majority of their time with (lower attaining pupils and pupils with special educational needs and disabilities) and teachers respond accordingly, stepping into the space provided. This in turn increases access to high quality teaching for those pupils who need it most. Now, it may be that teachers reported spending less time with these pupils because they were working more independently. But, it could also be the case that teachers needed greater support to adapt their practices, as TAs changed theirs.
On the whole, practice has changed, but an important part of the puzzle may be missing. There’s a sense of the image, but the picture isn’t complete.
The MITA programme also expected changes to practice to lead to an increase in pupil engagement. And as anticipated, pupils in MITA schools were more engaged than pupils in control schools. Despite this result being similarly limited by the smaller number of schools who completed the survey, it does indicate a positive change in line with expectations.
Whilst there was evidence of changes to practice in TA deployment, and improvements in pupil engagement, at the end of this two-year evaluation, there was no evidence indicating an improvement in pupil attainment. As such, this last expectation of the MITA programme – to improve pupil attainment outcomes – remains unmet. Can we explain why?
There are several possible reasons that may explain why there was no evidence of an improvement in pupil attainment:
- Changes to practice were not sufficient: although there were changes to practice, they might not have been significant enough to impact pupils’ progress.
- Sustained training and support are required: the magnitude of behaviour change was greatest in schools in the first year, and staff turnover also presented significant challenges for schools. Sustained input and support may be required to tackle these implementation challenges when embedding the MITA programme.
- More time is needed: behaviour change can be cumulative, and direct and indirect impacts can take longer to manifest. If this cumulative theory is applied to behaviour change in the MITA programme, subsequent improvements in attainment may be revealed at a later date, as behaviour changes become embedded.
Although the MITA programme did not realise its ultimate aim of improving attainment, there is much to digest here. Whilst outstanding questions do remain, aspects of the programme did demonstrate promise.
More generally, the findings from this trial are an important contribution to the evidence base as we look to learn more about how to empower our teaching assistants and maximise their impact in the classroom.