How teaching assistants can give a boost to struggling pupils

More maths anyone? David Jones/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Teaching assistants can help children improve literacy and numeracy skills if they work in small groups with specific pupils known to have low attainment levels, new reports indicate.

The findings appear to contradict previous research on teaching assistants, which had suggested that they did little to help struggling children.

Some of the research shows pupils with already low attainment levels, or those eligible from free school meals, are particularly likely to benefit from working with teaching assistants.

The six reports are the first to be published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), a UK charity set up in partnership with the Sutton Trust which has received funding from the department of education. Another 66 studies involving 450,000 children are ongoing at one in ten schools in England.

The studies – based on trials with 6,800 pupils at 238 schools – focused on programmes to help children at risk of arriving at secondary school without the level of literacy and numeracy expected of them. Some of the programmes were seen to be more effective than others.

One report called Catch-up Numeracy, an intervention in which pupils struggling with maths had two 15-minute sessions a week for 30 weeks, found that the one-to-one time with teaching assistants led to a significant gain in numeracy skills.

But the study, which used a randomised control trial, also found little difference between children on the programme, and others who received a similar amount of one-to-one time with teaching assistants. For Catch-up Numeracy, the children made an average of three months’ progress, whereas for the group with equivalent support, made four months’ progress.

Simon Rutt, the head of the centre for statistics at the National Foundation for Educational Research, who carried out the Catch-up Numeracy trial, said it seemed to show “there is a benefit of teaching class assistants for delivering one-to-one sessions with pupils. We have seen an additional benefit over and above normal classroom teaching”.

Another trial assessed the effectiveness of a ten-week programme called Switch-on Reading, shown to help children with lower-achievement levels progress by five months in literacy, and four months for children on free school meals or those with special education needs.

Stephen Gorard, professor of education and well-being at Durham University, who conducted the trial, said that some of the teachers had been surprised at the level of prescription required in the programme’s design. “A lot of the teachers didn’t like it, and some were found to be not following the procedures,” he said. “Almost everything was pre-defined, how they had to respond, even the kind of things they had to say.”

However, Gorard said “maybe that’s the point with teaching assistants … that’s what they need. They’ve got a recipe for exactly what to do.”

“Researchers and teachers live in separate worlds, speak different languages,” said Bette Chambers, director of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) at the University of York. The IEE was not involved in the six new reports, but it is conducting eight separate trials on behalf of the EEF.

“Until very recently researchers have not been expected to translate their research findings into plain English, nor have educators been expected to take evidence into account when making decisions about teaching and learning.”

“We seem to be about equal with the US and Canada in the evolution of evidence-based reform - though in all three countries there is more rhetoric than observance of this,” said Chambers. “We are making progress however and policymakers are beginning to encourage the use of evidence and to fund more what works research.”

Part of the push to increase the bank of evidence – and to create an a la carte menu of learning interventions – has been to help headteachers decide how to spend the increased pupil premium money allocated to them by the government for each disadvantaged child they teach. This school year, schools will receive £953 for each eligible primary school child, and £900 for secondary school children – a total of £1.875 billion. From September 2014, this will increase to £2.5 billion – meaning £1,300 for primary and £935 for secondary school children.

Gorard says making decisions on which interventions to choose is difficult for teachers. “It’s a bit like a bet. I’ve got this money to invest, what’s the evidence to suggest it’s the best thing I could spend it on?”

The studies also raise old questions about when children should be taken out of lessons. Timetabling interventions so as not to pull children out of other lessons, or make them miss break or sports lessons, remain an ongoing challenge for headteachers.

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