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Do teaching assistants improve pupil outcomes in mainstream schools?

Written By: Vana Avgerinou
8 min read

The number of teaching assistants (TAs) in schools has trebled since 2000, largely in response to two initiatives: to ease teachers’ workload and facilitate the inclusion of children with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) into mainstream education (Sharples et al., 2015).

Although teachers, school managers and parents are largely positive about the contribution of TAs in classrooms, recent research proposes that the current deployment and use of TAs in schools does not always lead to improved learning outcomes for all pupils (Webster and Blatchford, 2013; Webster and Blatchford, 2015). However, there is good evidence to suggest that when deployed effectively TAs can have a positive impact on pupil learning (Bosanquet et al., 2016). In exploring the challenges and opportunities here, this article draws heavily on the work of Rob Webster and colleagues.

The more interactions a pupil has with a TA, the less he or she is likely to interact with the teacher.

Jack of all trades?

Studies showing that TAs have a positive impact on pupil attainment list a variety of benefits for pupils. Wilson et al. (2003) found that TAs improve pupils’ learning experience, boost pupil motivation and self-esteem, establish good relationships with children and are largely favoured by parents. Woolfson and Truswell (2005) concluded that TAs contribute positively, not only to student learning, but also the social and emotional development of children. The researchers cite benefits such as higher adult-child ratio, better management of challenging behaviour, better playground supervision (facilitating play activities) and improved home-school links.

Researchers have presented evidence that targeted interventions delivered by trained TAs can help bridge the attainment gap between at-risk pupils and their peers (Miller, 2003; Savage and Carless, 2005; Savage and Carless, 2008; Savage et al., 2003). A review of targeted interventions led by TAs reports significant benefits for primary pupils with SEND (Farrell et al., 2010).

Children’s views about TAs also appear to be positive, many characterising them as useful and helpful (Fraser and Meadows, 2008). The common-sense assumption in these findings is that the presence of an additional adult in the classroom facilitates learning for all pupils, especially those with SEND, as it offers immediate access to extra adult support while allowing more time for teachers to teach.

Paths and barriers to learning

The recent longitudinal project on the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) (Webster et al., 2013) is the largest study of its kind in the world. It collected data on TA-pupil and teacher-pupil interactions from primary, secondary and special schools over a five-year period. Analysis confirmed the positive effects of TAs in alleviating teachers’ workloads and facilitating better classroom control.

However, it found that the pupils who received most support from TAs made the least progress in science, maths and English compared with pupils who received little or no TA support – even after controlling for pupil characteristics likely to be the reason for being allocated extra support, such as special educational needs (SEN) status and prior attainment. It showed that TAs routinely support low-attaining pupils or those with a statement of SEN, interacting with them nearly twice as much as teachers (41% compared with 21%).

The pattern is reversed for non-SEN pupils: teachers interact with those pupils twice as much as TAs (54% against 27%). Crucially, the more interactions a pupil has with a TA, the less he or she is likely to interact with the teacher. Nearly two-thirds of TA time was spent daily on a direct instructional role. The suggestion that teacher aides make no difference to pupil learning has been previously proposed by the STAR project in Tennessee (Mosteller, 1997; Finn and Achilles, 1999), but, strikingly, the DISS study found a significantly negative effect of TA support for maths, English and science across several year groups (though less so for science in older year groups).

Analogous findings were reported by the Making a Statement (MaSt) study (Webster and Blatchford, 2013), which looked at the daily educational experiences of children with a statement of SEN in mainstream primary schools in terms of where they receive support, who provides that support and the quality of adult-pupil interactions during that time.

Attaching a TA to a child who has fallen behind … might delay addressing what could potentially be more serious underlying needs.

Segregated learning: TA deployment, preparedness and practice

On the basis of data from the DISS and the MaSt studies, researchers developed the wider pedagogical role model (WPR) to explain why low-attaining and SEN pupils are negatively affected by the extra amount of TA support. They singled out three factors that have to do with the deployment, preparedness and practice of TAs. In terms of deployment, data from the DISS and MaSt studies showed that TAs are predominantly deployed to support SEN and low-attaining pupils. Crucially, they frequently take these pupils out of class for interventions (27% of the school day).

As a result of this separation, these pupils are exposed not only to less whole-class teaching compared with their peers (25% vs 36%), but also to significantly fewer opportunities (almost half) for peer interaction and group work. Moreover, a child repeatedly singled out to receive adult support in and/or outside the class can lead to stigmatisation and possibly to feelings of isolation for the supported pupil (Giangreco et al., 2001), potentially leading them to develop a friendship with the TA rather than with their peers. Additionally, attaching a TA to a child who has fallen behind or who displays disruptive behaviour might delay addressing what could potentially be more serious underlying needs.

With regards to preparedness, TAs often have the primary responsibility for planning instruction and adjusting the various learning tasks so that pupils with highly complex needs can access the curriculum. According to the DISS (Webster et al., 2013; Webster and Blatchford, 2013) and MaSt (Webster and Blatchford, 2013) findings, teachers have little training in working with and managing TAs and no allocated time to jointly plan interventions, support plans or exchange feedback on the progress of affected pupils. There is also little time to inform TAs of the week’s planning and learning objectives in advance; TAs often have to ‘tune in’ the teacher’s delivery to pick up crucial subject and pedagogical knowledge relevant to the day’s learning task.

With regards to practice, Radford et al. (2011) analysed the audio recordings of adult-pupil interactions collected in the DISS study and found significant differences in the way TAs and teachers use language to facilitate pupil participation and learning. Cited conversations suggest that teachers place emphasis on encouraging all pupils to participate, treating their answers as important even when they are inaccurate. Through elaboration, prompting, the use of modal verbs such as ‘could’ and ‘might’ that allow for a range of possible views, the teacher invites the students to a deeper exploration of concepts while guiding the discussion to the right answer. As Radford et al. (2011) points out, this turn-taking goes beyond the Initiation (I) – Response (R) – Feedback (F) sequence (Cazden, 2001), as it invites students to generate their own ideas and reasoning.

By comparison, when TAs interacted with pupils, emphasis was on task completion over developing understanding, which could be related to insufficient subject knowledge and/or lack of preparedness. TAs tended to use fewer scaffolding strategies, were frequently inclined to supply the answers rather than provide prompts to encourage pupils to think for themselves, unwittingly fostering dependence on adult support. Given the sustained and more frequent interactions TAs have with SEN and low-attaining pupils, such significant qualitative differences in the use of language and scaffolding strategies tailored to children’s zone of proximal development (Radford et al., 2015) represent crucial missed learning opportunities for the most vulnerable children.

The TA role reconsidered

A key issue raised by the DISS study is how TAs can be used more effectively to lead to better learning outcomes for all pupils. In The Effective Deployment of Teaching Assistants (EDTA), Webster et al. (2013) helped schools to work through some of the main issues arising from the DISS project, and to develop and evaluate alternative ways of using TAs in the classroom that worked for them.

There was an emphasis on allocated time for the teacher and TA for feedback and planning, as well as discussing the type of talk and questioning techniques best suited to a particular task. Literature on how TAs can develop effective scaffolding techniques provide valuable guidelines on improving TA practice (Radford et al., 2015, Bosanquet et al., 2016).

It would be helpful if it were routinely taught in TA courses. Similarly, it is important for teacher training courses to instruct trainee teachers how best to manage and collaborate with their TAs. The TA role, in terms of daily responsibilities, must be defined far more rigorously. Implementing these suggestions could help TAs support more effectively the learning and participation of pupils within the classroom.

The current TA status quo … suggests that we are not allowing our lowest-attaining pupils equal access to the curriculum.

A pedagogical role for TAs?

What still requires further consideration is whether TAs should maintain an instructional role (Giangreco et al., 1999), which appears to be largely favoured by teachers and school managers especially in view of increasing budget cuts. TA-led interventions present mixed evidence with regards to their effectiveness. Some studies report that TAs trained to deliver targeted interventions have helped to raise the attainment of at-risk pupils (Savage and Carless, 2005, Savage and Carless, 2008, Savage et al., 2003, Farrell et al., 2010, Miller, 2003), while other studies report no significant improvement in pupil attainment as a result of TA-led interventions (Muijs and Reynolds, 2003; Gerber et al., 2001).

It is not clear what impact these interventions would have if they were delivered by a qualified teacher. More rigorous research is needed to determine why some TA-led interventions seem to produce better pupil outcomes than others if we want to decide with any certainty if TAs should maintain a pedagogical role with SEN and low-attaining pupils. More systematic research is also needed to determine the effectiveness of TAs in leading interventions aimed at improving children’s emotional and behavioural problems.

As it is, the current TA status quo under which the children with the most complex learning needs are routinely taught by the least experienced and qualified individuals is not sufficiently justified by empirical evidence and suggests that we are not allowing our lowest-attaining pupils equal access to the curriculum. Giangreco et al. (1999) put it succinctly when he stated that we would not accept pupils without SEN to be routinely taught by TAs, so why do we allow it for our most vulnerable pupils?


The author would like to thank Putney High School for its support.

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