There was a time when the group of people making up the TA group could be characterised, as they once were, as a “mum’s army”, interested, engaged and enthusiastic, but more often seen as classroom menials, washing paint-pots and sharpening pencils. Now it is not unusual to meet a mixed sex group, with a range of ages, not necessarily, but still with a large number of parents, as young graduates use the TA route as a means of determining whether or not to become a teacher. Their prior experiences will be varied, but each brings to the classroom a wealth of expertise that the class teacher may not possess.
A significant number will live within the school catchment and may have done for some time, so they have a fundamental understanding of the community and may know a large number of families very well. They can act as the eyes and ears of the school; often act as ambassadors and may, from time to time, act as go-betweens, where relations have become strained. They can become de facto emotional literacy staff.
Some will have subject or work backgrounds that could be extremely valuable to the school, for example modern foreign languages. If you have a native speaker of the language that has been chosen as the school approach, why are they not used to support small group development activity?
I have met, over my time in schools, artists, poets, writers, scientists of all shades, engineers, actors, athletes and other sports people; in fact I employed some. As we became aware of their expertise, it was not a huge leap of thought to wonder how best to use them to support the school as a whole.
One example was an unemployed dad who volunteered to support in class, whose background was in engineering. He soon showed a considerable aptitude when leading Design Technology activities, not in a copyist way, but in developing children’s ability to think and solve their problems. This expertise was shared among the staff, and almost inevitably, we employed him in this role, extended to small group science activities too. His key skill was his ability to think with the children and encouraging high quality communicate. His knowledge base was good, supplemented by his working for an OU degree, which we supported. The success of this encouraged us to think more in terms of specialist TAs, as a supplement to classroom based arrangements, as there was still a need for in-class support. Over time, we did find linguists, musicians, artists and sports people, each of whom added significant value to day to day opportunities.
TAs were seen as key members of staff, joined in with staff training opportunities, adjusted, by agreement, their working hours to enable discussions with teachers and, where their expertise was significant were enabled to share this with teacher colleagues. An example was an artist TA leading staff training. TAs need to have a grasp of the teaching and learning approaches used within the school, so that they can work within expected norms, including the need for quality information sharing after a lesson.
Communication within the school is key to ensuring that TAs are used to best effect. This is both at institutional and classroom level. TAs need to receive in-house communications and also have time to talk and understand what they should be doing. From time to time, there is a need for TAs to receive training in aspects of practice, if they are to be more effective. In this case, training opportunities can be created by release of the relevant in-house expert, maths, English or SENCo, to deliver the necessary training within the available time; a half day off-timetable is often sufficient. CPD for TAs is as valuable and necessary as for teachers.
Where TAs are used less effectively, it is becoming clear that the question of value for money has been raised, not least after the publication of the Education Endowment Foundation Report on Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants, in 2015. This report talks of drifting into situations where TAs are poorly deployed, although everyone acts with the best of intentions. If one considers that a team of 25 TAs could cost a school £250k or more, it is reasonable to ask for evidence that this money is being used effectively.
There are, to me a number of simplicities within this equation.
- The school should have a clear rationale for employing the TA in the first instance; there should be a clear job and role description. This can be negotiated over time, to suit the needs of the school and/or the TA.
- TAs should be entitled to an induction process as for any other member of staff. If this is the remit of the class teacher, then the teaching staff may need some training in mentoring others.
- The teacher receiving the TA needs to see the role as complementary to their own role, and in developing the team ethic, needs to ensure that TA time is effectively deployed. For example, consider what the TA will do during the whole class input. They should be capable of being a “participant observer”, listening to the input while doing something else to help the class.
- There needs to be time built in to ensure discussion enables essential information exchange.
- The teacher should not give the TA the same group, so that the teacher never teaches them in a subject; the teacher is the senior member of staff and the responsible member of staff for class progress, in all subjects.
- High quality staff training for TAs, as individuals or collectively, should be as much of a priority as for teachers.
- Essentially, TAs, like teachers, need to know what they are doing, why they are doing it and what to do if it isn’t going to plan. They are often a significant part of the teaching and learning team, especially with regard to vulnerable individual or groups of children.
- Reviewing the need for and number of TA roles should be a regular part of school review, to ensure that the resource is fit for purpose and cost effective, as is the case for all resources, human or otherwise.
- And, in the absence of Government published TA standards, where a TA is in a teaching role, should they be judged against the lowest expectation of a teacher? See the diagram above for an example.