Little impact on performance

Need to rethink their use


A 2011 Sutton Trust publication ‘A Toolkit of Strategies to Improve Learning’  with regard to  Teaching Assistants found  that “Most studies have consistently found very small or no effects on attainment.”  A new book ‘Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants: How Research Changes Practice and Policy, by Peter Blatchford, Anthony Russell and Rob Webster,’ finds that pupils who received the most support from TAs consistently made less progress than similar pupils who received less TA support.

Over the past decade the number of Teaching Assistants hired in schools has trebled, with 213,900 employed  in  2011  alone.

Teaching assistants may be useful in providing administrative support to teachers, freeing up much needed time  but they are not essential it appears, to raising pupil performance. Indeed pupils who get more attention from TAs, for example those  who are low attaining  or with special needs, get less attention from the qualified teacher which may well  not be in their interests.

The authors say that that schools and policy-makers need to make radical changes in the way teaching assistants are deployed in classrooms. The book reports on a five-year study of 8,200 pupils. Results from this study – the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project – found that pupils who received the most support from TAs consistently made less progress than similar pupils who received less TA support.  Numbers of TAs have more than trebled since 1997, now making up a quarter of the school workforce. These results demonstrate that “the fault is not with TAs, but with decisions made — often with the best of intentions – about how they are used and prepared for their work,” the authors argue.  They say: “There has been a drift toward TAs becoming, in effect, the primary educators of lower-attaining pupils and those with special educational needs. Teachers like this arrangement because they can then teach the rest of the class, in the knowledge that the children in most need get more individual attention. “But the more support pupils get from TAs, the less they get from teachers. Supported pupils therefore become separated from the teacher and the curriculum. It is perhaps unsurprising then that these pupils make less progress.”  These results are now widely recognised and have fed into the Lamb Enquiry on SEN, new Ofsted guidance and the Government’s SEN green paper. The Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project is the biggest study of TAs and other school support staff worldwide.

In Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants the authors recommend:

•        TAs should not routinely support lower attaining pupils and those with SEN

•        Teachers should deploy TAs in ways that allow them to ‘add value’ to their own teaching

•        Initial teacher training should include how to work with and manage TAs

•        Schools have a formal induction process for TAs

•        More joint planning and feedback time for teachers and TAs.

The authors say that change is essential, but the answer is not to do away with TAs. “Budget cuts and the pupil premium can provide the impetus for school leaders to seriously consider the value they want to derive from expenditure on TAs, and find creative ways of making this happen,” they say. But keeping the status quo is not an option. “The present default position, in which pupils get alternative – not additional – support by TAs, lets down the most disadvantaged children.”



  1. The “mission creep” situation pertaining to TAs exemplifies what happens when educational policy makers are more interested in politics and votes, than in education: the absolute scourge of the UK system. I’ve heard an experienced teacher refer to TAs as “free EAL lessons” and I’m acutely aware myself of how difficult it is to employ them gainfully in a classroom. Finding “creative ways” to use them is far easier to say, than to do. They are, as the report notes, often glued to SEN or difficult pupils, as a crude behaviour management tool.

    The irony is that it was a political party who claims to be supportive of women in the workplace that created the role, and in effect created an army of mums, gave them part time work, but of the most dismal, depressing kind, saddling them with the most disaffected, disruptive and disinterested pupils in any class.

  2. The current position has taken the opportunity to make a vibrant contribution to a whole class and reduced it to that of a low-level functionary: in our observation work I have a simple question regarding adults in learning environments, it is: “What are they for?” sharp answer please!

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