Over the last five years, schools in England have been granted an unprecedented level of freedom. An increasing number of state schools now decide for themselves which children are admitted, the curriculum they follow, who to appoint to teach it, and how much they will be paid.
The professional architecture governing teachers’ qualifications and training, promotion, pay, and conditions of work has been loosened in ways that will already be familiar to England’s growing army of teaching assistants. There has been a trebling in the number of full-time equivalent teaching assistants in England since 2000, from 79,000 to 243,700 in 2013. Schools now spend around £4.4 billion a year on teaching assistants.
About 25 years ago, headteachers began offering parent-helpers paid roles as teaching assistants. This role tended to be held by women with few or no formal qualifications, and their contracted hours of work were in line with the school day. Though there are many more graduates working as teaching assistants today, recruitment and appointment practices still persist that no longer serve the needs of schools.
There has never been agreement on entry qualifications for teaching assistants, nor have there been consistently applied professional standards or a national pay and conditions framework. The most recent effort to achieve the latter was halted because, as the former secretary of state for education Michael Gove put it in 2010, it did not “fit well with the coalition government’s priorities for greater deregulation of the pay and conditions arrangements for the school workforce”.
As for the actual role itself, what teaching assistants do in classrooms has historically been somewhat ill-defined. Well-meaning attempts by government to clarify their role, such as the “specified work” teaching assistants can do “under the supervision of a teacher”, ran into trouble because there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Yet the absence of a shared organisational vision leads to variation and inconsistencies in how effectively teachers deploy teaching assistants within the same school. And a lack of purpose gives no focus to training arranged for individual teaching assistants.
Top-down edicts setting out what teaching assistants should and shouldn’t do have been difficult to achieve – and in any case, may be undesirable. But laissez-faire arrangements, where schools are encouraged to find local solutions to local problems, have also been problematic because the issue is so open-ended.
No replacement for teachers
Into this vacuum will soon arrive the Department for Education’s new professional standards for teaching assistants. My colleague Peter Blatchford and I have co-authored practical guidance with Jonathan Sharples at the Education Endowment Foundation.
Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants has been written to help school leaders make sense of, and act on, the research evidence about the impact of teaching assistants.
We have outlined a number of key recommendations. These include that teaching assistants should not be used as an informal teaching resource for struggling pupils. Teaching assistants should also add value to the teacher, rather than replace them. This means breaking away from a model in which assistants are assigned to a couple of pupils for long periods. Rather, it would be a better option if the teacher and assistant worked with separate groups and then swapped the next day.
Teaching assistants also need to have enough preparation time before they go into a classroom, including better liaison with teachers.
Our extensive research and on-going work with schools shows that making best use of teaching assistants is a school leadership issue. School leaders need to put pupils’ needs at the heart of a review of current practice and to think through ways of strategically deploying teaching assistants across the school to ensure that pupils receive the best possible educational experience.