Teaching assistants (TAs) are one of the biggest investments we make in terms of provision for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and those eligible for the Pupil Premium funding. Most TAs spend the majority of their time supporting these pupils in lessons across the curriculum. Yet, perhaps counter-intuitively, the evidence shows that this is one of the least effective ways to improve outcomes.
The largest UK study of the impact of classroom support staff found that pupils who got the most TA support performed less well academically than those who received little or no support – regardless of whether they had underlying SEND or low prior attainment (Blatchford et al., 2011).
The common-sense view is that children who experience difficulties with learning require more support, and this tends to come from TAs. Yet, as the evidence also reveals, a side-effect of this arrangement – and something of which teachers need to be mindful – is that pupils who require high-quality teaching the most receive the least (Webster, 2017). Separation from the classroom and the teacher is a key factor in the explanations of impact.
There are two other components to this explanation. Firstly, there are the interactions that TAs have with pupils. The evidence shows that, compared with teacher–pupil interactions, TA–pupil interactions are less academically demanding and more task-driven. TAs tend to focus on getting the task completed – and completed correctly – which can foster an unnecessary dependency. Secondly, there is the preparedness. This relates to the training that TAs have had (or not) to support learning effectively, and the training that teachers have received (or not) to know how to make the most of TAs in their classrooms. Preparedness also concerns the nature and quality of planning, preparation and feedback between teachers and TAs.
The central thesis of the work my colleagues and I do with schools is not that TAs are ineffective, but that school leaders and teachers do not always make the best decisions about how to deploy and work with TAs. The key to unlocking the potential of TAs is an effective partnership. And the best partnerships are characterised by seamless, fluid movements around the classroom, and an almost-telepathic understanding of who needs to do what, with which children, and when. It is a bit like watching a pair of accomplished dancers executing their moves.
So, how can new teachers develop an effective ‘classroom choreography’ with TAs?
Know your dance routine
First and foremost, TAs should not be used as an informal teaching resource for disadvantaged learners and those with SEND. The first line of defence in raising attainment is high-quality, teacher-led teaching. Ensure that you spend sufficient time with these pupils.
In partner dancing, one person usually takes the lead. This is you. Your mantra should be ‘supplement, not replace’. How can you organise the classroom to ensure that TAs add value to your teaching? Aim to deploy TAs in ways that free up opportunities for you to work with struggling pupils. For example, set up the classroom in such a way that on day one, the teacher works with one group, the TA with another, and the other groups complete tasks collaboratively or independently. On day two, rotate the adults and activities, and so on throughout the week. Or you could deploy the TA in a ‘triage’ role. Ensure that they know how to identify the pupils who are the most stuck and need your input to progress, and direct your attention to where your expertise is urgently needed. Some teachers give TAs a more visible role in teaching, scribing answers on the whiteboard or demonstrating equipment. This is useful for you as it allows you to maintain eye contact with the class.
A SENCO I know talks about teachers and TAs ‘knowing their dance routine’. The best classroom partnerships are built on a clear and specified understanding of who does what. Mapping out your roles at various stages of a lesson can help you develop and embed practices. We have devised a template to help you coordinate your steps and avoid treading on each other’s toes (Education Endowment Foundation, 2015).
Increase TAs’ repertoire
A consistent finding in the research on TA effectiveness (Giangreco, 2010) is that pupils who receive the highest amounts of support are at risk of developing learned helplessness. We can turn this around by encouraging TAs to foster pupil independence – and dial down dependence – by ensuring that their interactions focus on the processes of learning, not products (i.e. task completion). To do this, you may need to support the TAs you work with to build or refine their interaction skills. Think of this as helping to build their repertoire of dance steps, and ensure the consistent execution of signature moves.
Figure 1 shows a straightforward, practical scaffolding framework to support better TA–pupil interaction, based on the work of Paula Bosanquet and Julie Radford (Bosanquet et al., 2016).
The transformative potential of the scaffolding framework lies in an apparent contradiction: TAs should always give pupils the least amount of help first. Let us consider how this works in practice by unpacking the five layers of the framework.
- Self-scaffolding: The TA’s default position is to observe pupil performance, allowing time and space for them to process, think and try tasks independently. TAs need to get comfortable with pupils struggling a bit and recognise this as an essential part of learning.
- Prompting: TAs intervene with a nudge or encouragement – ‘What do you need to do first?’; ‘What’s your plan?’; ‘You can do this!’
- Clueing: Often, pupils know the problem-solving strategies that prompts are designed to elicit, but they find it difficult to call them to mind. Clues are a question or small piece of information to help pupils work out how to move forward. They should be drip-fed; always start with a small clue.
- Modelling: Usually the teacher will have modelled new skills and strategies for the class, but some pupils may require further demonstration. TAs can do additional modelling while pupils actively watch and listen, before trying the same step for themselves afterwards.
- Correcting: Correction is simply where TAs provide answers and it requires no independent thinking. Avoid.
Pupils can internalise, practise and perfect independent learning skills over time and add them to their store of self-scaffolding techniques. But as you get to know your new class(es), you will need to ascertain whether pupils have a set of strategies to help them plan, problem-solve and review their work independently, and where and how TAs can help them improve these.
Rehearse and review
One of the biggest barriers to fully unlocking the potential of classroom support is the lack of opportunities for teachers and TAs to meet to plan and prepare. This is a good example of the important strategic step that school leaders need to undertake in order to support their staff to collaborate, share and create better teaching and learning opportunities for pupils.
It is worth reflecting on why effective teacher–TA liaison is so essential to effective classroom partnerships. Here is how one TA put it to me: ‘You come into a classroom, you listen to the 20 minutes of teaching, and from that, you should know. And then you’re to feed it to the children. It’s scary.’ (Webster et al., 2016)
Unpacking this, we can see that in the absence of a pre-lesson briefing, this TA has to tune in to the teacher’s whole-class input in order to understand the concepts being taught, skills to be learned or applied, tasks and instructions, and the intended learning outcomes. Then she is expected to apply her judgment and provide any differentiation she deems necessary (this is what she means by ‘feed it to the children’). Add to this the very probable subject and instructional knowledge differential that exists between teachers and TAs, and the fact that she is working with those who find it hardest to access teaching. Scary, indeed.
Teaching is a craft mostly acquired on the job; it is the same for TAs. In reality, when it comes to perfecting your classroom partnership, there is not much time for rehearsal. But as the ‘lead partner’, it is your responsibility to ensure that TAs are prepared and know their role in the lesson. Should you and your TA get non-contact time, avoid using it to get them to do admin tasks. Focus on communicating the lesson ‘need to knows’. Structure your conversations by agreeing a checklist of things to cover.
Effective and efficient lesson planning starts with a good understanding of what pupils could and could not do at the end of the previous lesson. Be clear about what you want TAs to feed back. Ask them to record their observations on pupil performance as they are working. You could set process success criteria and ask TAs to capture observations against the layers of the scaffolding framework using our editable template (Bosanquet et al., 2016).
Building an effective classroom partnership with your TA can make a significant difference to young lives.
Download the ‘making best use of TAs’ template here: http://maximisingtas.co.uk/assets/content/03eef-tasupplementaryteacheragreementv3.pdf.
Rob Webster is Director of the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) programme, based at the Centre for Inclusive Education, UCL Institute of Education.