EEF BLOG: Unlocking the potential of Teaching Assistants

Dr Jonathan Sharples, Senior Researcher at the EEF, discusses the implications of today's EEF Guidance Report on the effective use of Teaching Assistants.

One of the most challenged and debated areas of research in the Teaching and Learning Toolkit relates to the use of Teaching Assistants (TAs) in schools. The evidence is striking: despite spending over £4billion a year on TAs in English schools, research suggests they are not adding significantly to pupils’ attainment. Yet, if you look beyond that headline figure you find this average hides a more positive picture, with clear examples of where TAs are making noticeable improvement to learning outcomes.

Today, the EEF publishes its first Guidance Report for schools, Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants. The report draws on the best available research evidence to set out a positive message as to how schools can maximise the impact of TAs. It outlines seven practical recommendations, arranged in three sections:

    a) recommendations on the use of TAs in everyday classroom contexts

    b) recommendations on TAs delivering structured interventions out of class

    c) recommendations on linking learning from work led by teachers and TAs.

Three of the recommendations draw on evaluations of recent EEF-funded projects that involve TAs delivering structured interventions: firstly, use TAs to deliver high-quality one-to-one and small group support; secondly, adopt evidence-based interventions to support TAs in this role; and thirdly, ensure explicit connections are made between learning from everyday classroom teaching and structured interventions.

We have funded four projects to date where TAs have delivered structured literacy and numeracy interventions in small-group or one-to-one settings - Switch On Reading, Catch Up Numeracy, Catch Up Literacy and Talk for Literacy - that show impacts of approximately three to four additional months progress, compared to situations where TAs are deployed as usual (control schools).

Crucially (and you can’t emphasise this enough!), these positive effects are only observed when TAs work in structured settings with high-quality support and training. When TAs are deployed in more informal, unsupported instructional roles, they can impact negatively on pupils’ learning outcomes. This was one of the key findings from the large-scale Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) research, which looked at typical ways in which TAs were being used in UK schools, and the impact they were having on pupil attainment. The research team observed that the majority of TAs spent most of their time working in a direct, but informal, instructional role with pupils on a small group and one-to-one basis (both inside and outside of the classroom). The amount of time TAs had in this role was negatively correlated with pupil progress.

So what is making the difference here? Clearly, it is the amount and type of training, coaching and support provided by the school. In this sense, structured evidence-based interventions provide a excellent means of aiding high-quality delivery.

This theme of more strategic deployment, training and support for TAs runs throughout the Guidance Report. We recognise that TAs are not always going to be delivering structured interventions, so recommendations on the use of TAs in everyday classroom environments are also included. Here, the take-home message is to ensure that TAs supplement, rather than replace the teacher, so that all pupils retain access to high-quality classroom teaching. The remaining recommendations build on this point by describing how TAs and teachers can complement each other in these roles.

Overall, we believe that the guidance provides a framework to help unlock the potential of TAs, and help them thrive in their role, by transforming the way they are deployed and supported in schools.