Teaching assistants (TAs) account for 28% of the overall school workforce in mainstream schools in England (DfE, 2020) and are most commonly found in schools with high levels of disadvantage (EPI, 2020). As linchpins of so many school communities, it is essential that we continue working to unlock teaching assistants’ potential by carefully reviewing how they are deployed and supported.
In early 2015, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) published a guidance report for schools, Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants, summarising the latest research evidence on the effective deployment of TAs. The report found that English schools employed 300,000 TAs at a cost of over £4 billion a year, but that the typical ways in which TAs were being used were not positively impacting pupil attainment.
However, we’ve come to learn that whilst TAs are deployed in a mixed and flexible way that differs from school to school, generally they have two main objectives:
- Targeted deployment, in which TAs deliver targeted interventions to individual pupils or small groups, typically out of class, and;
- General deployment, where they provide general support in the everyday classroom environment.
The research suggests that these approaches have vastly different impacts on pupil attainment.
An increasing body of evidence, including from a number of EEF-funded evaluations, shows that targeted deployment, using well-evidenced interventions, can have a significant positive impact on attainment outcomes when implemented effectively. The EEF’s newly updated Teaching and Learning Toolkit indicates an average additional months’ progress is 5 months, with EEF evaluations such as the Nuffield Early Language Intervention exemplifying this positive impact.
In contrast, existing research suggests that TA deployment in the general classroom environment has on average, no additional impact on learning outcomes. A key study on the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) (Blatchford, 2009) found that pupils receiving the most support from TAs – commonly lower attaining pupils and those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) – made less progress than similar pupils receiving less TA support.
Despite the widespread use of TAs in schools, research on general TA deployment in the classroom is more limited.
We should not forget, however, that attainment outcomes are not the only value that TAs bring to the general classroom environment.
There is also evidence that working with TAs can lead to improvements in pupils’ attitudes, as well as positive effects for teachers, in terms of supporting their overall workload and reducing stress. This was particularly prominent during COVID-19, where TAs played an invaluable role, supporting schools by covering absences, forming bridges between schools and parents, and following up on home learners.
With this in mind, it may be useful to think about the two approaches to TA deployment as different routes to achieving separate outcomes:
- Investing in professional development for TAs to deliver structured interventions can be a cost
- effective approach to improving attainment outcomes, and;
- Deploying TAs in the general classroom environment to meet a different set of outcomes, such as improving pupils’ attitudes, and reducing teacher stress.
The most important principle underpinning both of these approaches to deployment is that all pupils should have access to high quality teaching, particularly those who are disadvantaged and need additional support to succeed. When pupils do receive support from a TA, this should not reduce the interactions they have with their classroom teacher and their peers, both during class and as a result of out-of-class interventions.
We can be confident however that the current evidence suggests TAs can, and do, make a significant contribution to the school communities in which they operate. However, in terms of improving pupil outcomes, it’s important that we keep in mind that how they are deployed is key.