The role of teaching assistants

The 15 minute forum tonight was led by our SENCO, Carole Marsh.

Assumptions about the effectiveness of teaching assistants

Until recently there has been very little research on the impact of TAs.  Traditional deployment has been based on 2 untested assumptions …

  1. Support from TAs leads to positive outcomes for students … particularly low attaining and those with SEN

2. There are positive effects for teachers

Recent research suggests …

  • Teaching assistants having little impact on student achievement (Hattie)
  • The cost of Teaching Assistants as a support intervention is high (Coe)
  • The problem doesn’t lie with TAs but with the way we ask them to work (Webster)

The ‘Deployment and Impact of Support Staff study’ by the Institute of Education also points to minimal impact on student achievement.  It does however recognise that there are benefits on behavioural, emotional and social development.

Overall, research shows that students in a class with a teaching assistant present do not, on average, outperform those in one where only a teacher is present.

One unintended consequence of the traditional way Teaching Assistants work is that it limits the interaction between the class teacher and the student(s) who need additional help and support. In the traditional way of working there is an assumption in practice that when a TA is assigned to a student he / she will support that student through breaking the work down, giving clarification and explanation and dealing with pupil misconceptions. However, what we tend to see is that by sitting with / next to a student a ‘barrier’ is inadvertently placed between teacher and student. The consequence is that those students in most need of subject specific help, are drawing most of their support from a non-specialist and in fact tend to get less attention from the teacher.  This is not a good situation.

Audit of practice

In 2014-15 Carole carried out a small scale research project on TA effectiveness.   Unsurprisingly, a range of different working practices between teachers & TAs emerged … but 3 main issues were regularly mentioned:

  • Communication – Communication between teachers and TAs was mixed ranging from always discussing the lesson in advance to never discussing the lesson. Time for joint planning was mentioned by both teachers and TAs as being desirable … and not having it as being a constraint. If the potential for discussion regarding planning is problematic there is, however, evidence that there is some discussion occurring about individual students and their needs.
  • TAs providing support interventions – this was often initiated by the TA, based on what they thought had to be addressed.  However, this might have been different to what the teacher would have focused on, in order to support the student.
  • TAs working with individual students – this has a tendency to result in the issues mentioned earlier – a lack of interaction between the teacher and the student.  It also risks embedding a culture of dependency, as the students become too used to having an adult directing everything they do, including very generic instructions that they should be able to respond to independently.

A new model – a new way of working

As a result of these findings, Carole thought it was time for a new approach to using TAs.  Carole spoke to teachers and TAs, sharing the research evidence with them.  As a result the following new approach was agreed:

  • Change the focus from TA working primarily with SEN student, to general whole class support.
  • TAs were not to ignore SEN students,  but to widen their whole class role.
  • Teacher was to have greater interaction with SEN students and use their subject/pedagogical knowledge to support and challenge these students.

The approach was trialled with one teacher and one TA, in geography lessons.  The teacher identified two issues – caused by TAs being asked to work in a number of subject areas:

  1. They are not always best placed to judge whether an answer is right or wrong.
  2. They are not always best placed to give specific improvement points for the students.

It’s worth stressing again at this point, that this is not the fault of the TA.  They are committed to the students and work incredibly hard.  However, because of the way in which they have been traditionally deployed (i.e. going from lesson to lesson with a student), they are expected to have an in-depth knowledge of a large number of curriculum areas.  This is a very big ask!  The assumptions of working practice that almost everyone has used with TAs,  does not give the benefits we hope.

Changes made to lessons…….

  • The TA circulates around the classroom, keeping all students on task rather than single SEN focus.
  • The TA learns exam framework and command words.  They make it their business to find out what is required, in the subject if students are to succeed and how to structure their written responses.
  • Teacher focuses on explanations, clarifying misconceptions, re-explaining to all students,  including SEN students rather than relying on TA to do this.


  • The TA felt far more confident within the subject.
  • The teacher noticed a significant mark gain in TP2 assessment compared to TP1.  The extent of this gain could obviously not be directly attributed to this change, as there are so many other factors involved,  but the teacher “felt it had helped

Another major change that has been implemented is that TAs are now linked to curriculum areas, so they become ‘experts’ in supporting students, within that subject.

As a result of this, the approach has now been implemented across the school.

What have the teachers said?

  • All said they now had more personalised time with these students.  It has changed they way they now think about the lessons and their planning, from the perspective of these students.
  • Changed their expectations of what these students can achieve.
  • Increased scaffolding of work … this group of students are now finding the work more accessible.
  • Shift in perception of the TA role … more students are now getting support and guidance from them.

One teacher said “As a consequence students are now achieving their expected progress or exceeding expectations.

What did the TAs say?

  • This is a much more complex picture … because of the nature of their work they add value to their students in a variety of ways:


–Lifting their motivation


  • This project asks for a re-shaping of the TA – it’s a good starting point.
  • TAs report that as a result of these changes …

–Teachers are generally giving more time / input to SEN students (clarifying, explaining, dealing with misconceptions).

–A wider role in whole class support for themselves … although this needs further definition.

–An anxiety that the SEN students don’t feel adrift and left to themselves.

What did the students say?

This was mixed.  The younger students, who had become used to having a TA with them for long periods of time at middle school, felt a little vulnerable by the changes.  However, the older students enjoyed the independence.  In many ways, the response of the younger students suggests that this new approach is definitely worth pursuing – if we want to move students away from a habit of dependency, towards independence.  The students’ comments point towards the work of both teacher and TA being more focussed:

  • Teacher … using their subject knowledge and pedagogical expertise to give explanations, clarity, respond to misconceptions, general help and support.
  • TA … more targeted support – responding to student need rather than being their all the time

The following quotes are from some of the SEN students involved in the pilot:

“The teacher helps me by explaining the task and helping me with planning”

“The Teacher spends more time with me than before. They explain the tasks to me and help with my spellings too. The changes have helped me improve my progress. I have noticed this in the amount of text I can write now.”

“The TA spends less time with me in …. as it is only when I ask for help now. I don’t feel any different to the other students. I like this”


  • This is a small scale study based on research undertaken by Rob Webster (Institute of Education).  It points to a better experience for SEN students when this new way of working is used.
  • Class teachers now work more closely with SEN students
  • TAs have a wider whole class support brief (although they still work with individuals). This enhances their role and effectiveness

Need more information on student progress (over a number of years) to make more definitive statements.

If you would like to read more about Carole’s project, it can be downloaded here.


This entry was posted in 15 Minute Forums, General Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The role of teaching assistants

  1. Pingback: The role of teaching assistants | splozza11

  2. nancy says:

    Just fabulous! Thank you for posting.

  3. Gosh this is good – really really good. What a fab SENCO – will share this at our school. Thank you

  4. inco14 says:

    Hi, thanks for the fab post – it really consolidates lots of the concerns around how TAs are currently used, and is written with real empathy for all involved. I agree that a change needs to occur, but would argue that the suggestions made in this post don’t go far enough; enough for children with additional needs or enough for the changes we need to see in society as a whole, to make things right for those with disabilities, that could potentially be caused by the decisions we make in education now.
    Would you agree that the assertion that TA presence has a positive impact on behavior and socio-emotional aspects of the classroom experience is actually another unproven assumption? Another adult in the room probably mostly does have a positive impact! I, personally, wouldn’t express this positive impact as an absolute though. An adult present in the room purely for the purpose can be a godsend, I know, but fosters another kind of learnt dependency in the students, I would suggest. That TA can have a responsibility to all students but the likely scenario is that students with additional needs are going to continue to demand that attention to a greater extent than their peers; they are likely to continue to be dependent on a person who is not a subject specialist, pedagogically qualified teacher. What’s more, other children may be naturally inclined to becoming reliant on the TA if that option becomes available to them. Avoiding velcroing would, I think, continue to be an issue. In addition, the dynamic between the teacher and TA – especially if they don’t communicate on a regular basis – can make it difficult for the TA to manage behaviour effectively.
    Whilst ever some children are taught (by which I mean the direct input from an adult they have in the classroom) by subject specialist qualified individuals, and some have their direct input from non-specialist, unqualified individuals, we will continue to perpetuate the unequal society model that presently prevails. It is so ingrained in our norms and structures that treating those with disabilities as ‘other’ (separate facilities, separate entrances, less available, lower expectations et cetera) is not just tolerated but actively celebrated; the establishment with the most ‘disabled access’ is considered to be the most inclusive when, I’m reality, the establishment where those with disabilities can just go in the front door and get on with the matter at hand – unsegregated – is the one that should be hailed as most inclusive. When we segregate and buffer provision for SEN in schools we inadvertently teach all of our children that those with disabilities are ‘other’. Those children go on to run businesses, establishments and schools where they continue to see those with disabilities as ‘other’.
    None of this, of course, is the TAs fault. There will always be – and must always be – a role for non teaching, child focussed staff in schools. My own untested assumption is that students find non teaching staff more approachable and are more likely to disclose safeguarding information and such like. I feel there needs to be a really, really clear distinction between those who teach – and are trained to do so – and those who don’t; PAs for personal care, pastoral support services, mentoring et cetera.
    IN addition, there’s the huge problem of the lack of SEN specific input at ITT. Teachers are ill-prepared to support diversity in their classroom because they haven’t been trained to do so. The next generation of teachers probably went to schools where segregation of those with disabilities was the norm, and possibly even celebrated. And they’re being trained by teachers that were inadvertently taught the same thing when they were at school and throughout their careers.
    I am INCo at a mainstream high school that has no TAs and no withdrawal interventios , and our students with additional needs make the same progress as their peers. This reply has already got rather long so I won’t go into more detail here, but there’s plenty on my blog about it. The articles ‘TA, or not TA’, ‘Why our schools don’t need teaching assistants’, and ‘climbing mountains’ probably have the most detail about our systems and culture though. I’d love to know what you think!

  5. Pingback: Unsung Heroines: TAs & MFL Lessons | Everyday MFL

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s