TA, or not TA?

That is the question. And it’s a rhetorical question; there are no teaching assistants at my school. And it is, by far, the thing I find myself explaining, justifying and, well, actively defending most often. TA’s, understandably, are a controversial and emotive subject. Not least because they’ve been the victims of some (vaguely) damning research over the last few years, but also, when you’re talking about TA’s you’re really talking about the education and well-being of our most vulnerable learners; you’re talking about people’s jobs/careers/vocations; and you’re raising a question about the role expectations and responsibilities of teachers. It’s important. So it’s important that we get it right. The decision to be a no-TA school wasn’t taken on the basis of a personal vendetta against classroom support staff, nor is it because we don’t have students who would receive that kind of support if they went to a different school; we do. We simply forgot to employ any, and now… only joking. It is, as always, a decision made as a result of considering the needs of the students – all of the students – and putting systems and structures in place that meet those needs. So here it is; why my school has no TA’s and what we do instead – a treatise.

Why my school has no TA’s;

  • There was some research…
    It seems a little unreasonable to go ahead without mentioning the Education Endowment Foundation/Sutton Trust research on the same topic. TA’s are high cost, low impact; that’s the headline…but, other than that, the whole thing’s just a little bit hazy. The vast differences in the roles and responsibilities between the primary, secondary and special education sectors, and even within those sectors, means that any research conducted is difficult to generalise. If it succeeded in achieving anything it is that it made schools reconsider how their TA’s were being deployed and, where it looked like the problems pointed out in the research might apply, implement changes in order to make improvements. I don’t intend this to be (another) analysis, critique or protestations of the EEF research; that’s been done to death. I’ve included links to the research, my favourite analysis of it, and some other responses to it, in the READ section above. I’ve covered the points that I feel apply to my own setting – a mainstream secondary school – in the bullet point below.
  • Equality in education means equal quality of education for all students…
    And equal quality of education means equal access to qualified teachers, subject specialists, resources, materials, and educational experiences for all students. Whether it is a TA sat with a student/small group within the classroom, or individuals/small groups being withdrawn for extra literacy, numeracy or nurture with a non-teacher, this is reducing that/those student(s) access to qualified, specialist staff and, as such, it is not truly inclusive; it is a form of internal segregation. In order to ensure equal quality of education, the most vulnerable learners will need MORE access to qualified, specialist staff, not less.  If we are to avoid diminishing the value of teacher training and continuing professional development, we have to concede and accept that TA’s, by their very nature, do not have that training and specialism. What is it that a teacher can offer (to testify to their training and justify their pay packet) that a TA cannot? And don’t our vulnerable learners need that thing too? In fact, more of it? The EEF research alludes to this when they say that sometimes, maybe, there might be situations where the presence of a TA might possibly be actively detrimental to a student’s academic progress and development. That a lack of understanding of how knowledge is acquired and how children develop might lead to deskilling or even the TA doing the work for them. I’ve seen this happening.
    I know that lots of TA’s now do undertake training (HLTA or similar, or training in a specific intervention), have degrees that give them a specialism, or work with the most instead of least able… I still think that all students should have equal access to fully qualified, specialist teachers. And I know that some TA’s are just really, really good at what they do and are genuinely adding value to that students learning experience; these TA’s are teachers. Undervalued, underpaid teachers. If you’re teaching you’re a teacher – whether it’s a class, a group, or one twelve year old with learning difficulties – and you should be acknowledged as such. Of course, if a person with those skills is happy with their situation – maybe they don’t want to train/qualify, and they’re happy with their salary – that’s fine, but because of the low expectation for qualification and experience at application/interview, finding these amazing people is pot luck and a punt I’m not willing to take.
  • Equality in education means equal quality of experience for all students…
    School isn’t just about an academic education, it should also prepare students for adulthood and be an enjoyable overall experience. There are two points here; 1) how do we ensure our most vulnerable learners are as prepared as possible for adult life? and 2) how do we ensure that their school days are a happy memory when they achieve that?
    First things first; our lowest ability, most vulnerable learners need to become independent, autonomous and resilient adults. The first challenge with each new year 7 cohort is to convince those students who have had a TA that, when we speak, we mean them too. Even an instruction as simple as ‘everyone open your book’ is, more often than not, ‘everyone open your book; [insert name], open your book’. They are the victims of classroom level internal segregation and low expectation… they have learnt that ‘whole class’, or ‘everyone’, doesn’t mean them; they’re not expected to be able to do it. I’m not saying that we should just leave them to fend for themselves, of course not, but how that support is given is due a rethink. Remember; their TA is not going to be with them in the team meeting when they’re 24; their TA is not going to be with them on the platform when the train’s cancelled and the Tannoy crackles into life. Their TA probably isn’t even going to be with them in every lesson they go to in a normal school day.
    Second things second; I’m going to be blunt here. It is hard enough being a teenager. It is one giant social/emotional/behavioural learning curve. Making (and retaining!) friendships, being part of a crowd, learning right from wrong… is hard enough as it is and even more of a challenge if you have an additional need. The last thing you need is to spend the best part of each day hanging out with some middle aged woman. Okay, I’m generalising (not all TA’s are middle aged women) and being pejorative… as always… but I’m sticking to my guns on this one. Of course, we want our students to behave because they’re motivated to learn. We want them to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do… but, ultimately, they are learning. They’re going to pass notes, whisper, take a 2 minute daydream, throw a paper aeroplane, and learn the hard way that this will get them into trouble (or, even better, it will prevent themselves or others from being the best that they can be!)… and, sometimes, they might just get away with it. Being with a TA blocks access to these normal social/emotional/behavioural learning opportunities. Little clockwork oranges, being forced to do right instead of being able to choose right from wrong.

What do we do instead?

  • Superstructures: staffing and timetabling…
    At key stage 3 (we only have years 7-9 currently) the students are grouped according to ability and the timetable is structured to reflect the needs and priorities of each ability group. So, groups 1 and 2 have four lessons each of English and maths every week, group 3 have five of each and group 4 have a whopping 8 of each every week. Of the 16 English and maths lessons group 4 have around 80% of them are double staffed; there are two subject specialist, or a subject specialist and an IN specialist, teachers timetabled for that lesson. There are also a small number of lessons each week that are triple staffed on the same basis. I’ll leave the specifics of how the over-timetabling and double/triple staffing actually works for a future post (this one’s getting a bit long!) but, basically, it allows for super flexibility, lots of collaboration, intervention to take place within timetabled lessons, pre-teaching/over-teaching/just taking it slow, and a more focused curriculum for lower ability learners, all with qualified teachers.
  • Superstructures: teaching, learning and assessment…
    In addition to the long term structural differentiation described above, all students are closely monitored and intervention for those that are not making expected progress is swift and pertinent. Movement between the ability groups can take place within the year as well as at transition time, targeted intervention is delivered – for all ability groups – by subject specialists within departments. Daily planning is focused on intervention and differentiation based on the most recent assessment data as well as being responsive to students’ needs within the lesson. Again, there’s too much to say for on bullet point in a post about TA’s, but that’s the gist; whole school systems that are designed for the whole school and, as such, meet the needs of all students.
  • All teachers are teachers of SEN…
    Being a truly inclusive school relies on having a truly inclusive school culture. There’s no TA’s and no withdrawal, so if they’re on your register they’re your responsibility… and the expectation for low ability students to make progress is as high as it is for everyone else; in fact, it’s higher – they’ve got further to travel. Literacy intervention is the responsibility of the English department and numeracy is the responsibility of the maths department. That leaves pastoral intervention and support for the Individual Needs department (IN); homework club, handwriting, dyslexia support, ASC, access for physical and sensory disabilities et cetera. The superstructures support teaching staff to support their vulnerable learners, but there’s no denying that some students present more of a challenge for inclusivity than others. IN strives to provide the information and back-up – Inclusion Strategies (INIS’s – similar to one-page-profiles) and Intervention Plans (INIP’s – replace IEP’s), support with planning, resources and assessing students, advice and information – that make success possible.
  • The bigger picture…
    Of course, this all sits within the wider framework of educational and societal equality at the local authority, regional and national level. Mary Warnock, in her 2005 revision of her views on SEN-D policy, suggested that there should be more, smaller schools. This would enable schools to have fairly narrow specialisms (including specialisms that would make them more suited to children with complex additional needs as well as specialisms such as sports, arts, science, computing et cetera), it would give parents more choice as to where their child goes to school, and it would enable each school to foster a more nurturing, personal overall environment. In addition, it is vital that each child is in the school that is right for them; the school that can give them the best quality of education and school experience possible. For some students this could mean a school that specialises in a particular skill they have demonstrated or are interested in – dance, computing, sports et cetera – and for others it might be a school that specialises in a particular need they have – Autism, complex learning needs, multi-sensory impairment et cetera –and provide a certain kind of environment, resources or expertise. I still firmly believe that the local school is, more often than not, the right school for the majority of children; including those with a Statement of SEN or EHCP. Being truly inclusive means having a diverse community where children learn tolerance, acceptance and to value all sorts of different people, and being open minded, flexible and willing to apply every aspect of your school policy to a wide range of abilities and needs… but this needs to be in balance with a commitment to ensuring that each child is getting equal quality of education and experience; and it may be that this can only be attained at a different school. Equality at a local authority, regional or societal level means getting a balance between these two things, and this will enable each individual school to be truly inclusive as a result.

I’m not saying what we are doing is perfect. It’s a work in progress and will need continuous, ongoing tweaking and re-adjusting in order to ensure that we are getting it right. What’s more, every new cohort will bring a fresh set of challenges that will require us to review the systems in order to make sure true inclusion – equal quality of education – is being achieved. Ultimately, we do what is right for the individual; educationally and experientially. We do not currently have any students with complex physical or sensory need and, although I strongly believe that the systems we have in place will cater for these students’ learning needs, I realise that they may need support to access the physical environment or communication of the classroom and that this may require support. We have already discussed employing PA’s – personal assistants – to fulfill this role, but with the above described system remaining in place and no expectation of them to function as a teaching assistant, only to support safe access, personal care et cetera. Key stage 4 will bring a new set of challenges that will need to be met and we will, eventually, have a sixth form as well. I’m confident that the system we are developing will remain fit for purpose throughout, but only if we remain open minded, flexible, and focused on the individual needs of each individual child that comes on role. And that’s what true inclusion is all about.

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9 thoughts on “TA, or not TA?

  1. Very interesting read. I have been musing on this recently myself. It seems like TAs in general aren’t good value but each individual teacher loves their TA. It is therefore nearly impossible to have a rational discussion about the topic with many people in schools.

    • I have found exactly the same thing. The current system is well and truly entrenched and it is difficult for people to see alternatives (especially if those alternatives would be difficult to implement). I worry that teachers love their TA’s because it takes the pressure off them to deal with the children who have complex learning needs. If they’re on your register, they’re your responsibility; no teacher should be waiting to see who is going to come sit with those children or, as is often the case, take them away to an intervention.

  2. When you say all teachers are teachers of SEN I assume you are talking about those with a learning disability. In that respect I fully agree with you. Every child is entitled to a qualified teacher and should have one. That said, in special schools it is very different. Would you say teachers should be tube feeding children or administering oxygen? I wouldn’t really. What would the rest of the class be doing if I was engaged in that.
    Also I have an MA in SEN and Inclusion. I am specially trained to teach children as low as P1. Can every teacher do that? Do all teachers want to do that? Not every teacher can teach SEN. They can all teach those with learning difficulties but those with complex medical and neurological difficulties are entirely different. These children require teacher and TA.
    Your post was thought provoking and I enjoyed reading it.

    • Hi, thanks for the comment – you’ve raised some really important points that i failed to cover/brushed over in my post.

      The “all teachers are teachers of SEN” is wording used by the DfE somewhere, i forget where. I mean ‘SEN’ as in those children who appear on a mainstream school’s special needs register. This is really closely related to what I said about it being crucial that all children are in the school that offers them the best deal; this post is about the kind of additional needs you would find in a mainstream school… I don’t for a second think it applies to special schools.

      Also, the idea of all teachers being teachers of SEN is somewhat hindered by the lack of SEN training incorporated into initial teacher training. However, even with the best training that could be provided, and ongoing CPD, you can’t expect all teachers to have knowledge and experience of the vast range of needs that SEN-D can cover. Maybe there will always need to be a SENCo to act in an advisory role and support teachers to meet the needs of all of their students, despite my best efforts to completely work my way out of a job.

  3. Ah well that devalues the entire year, all the expense, time, energy and committment I have just put into teaching assistant training courses, reinventing myself in what I thought would be a positive new career.
    Thanks.

    • I’m sorry that you feel that way and I’m sure it isn’t true. The reality is, our most vulnerable learners continue to have their needs met through use of teaching assistants and this isn’t likely to change drastically any time soon. It is crucial that TAs are deployed as effectively as possible in the meantime. The complication, for me, is that there are genuinely excellent TAs that are really getting the best out of children without causing them to become reliant or isolated from their peers. I firmly believe and stand by what I’ve written in this post but wouldn’t want it to be mistaken for a blanket condemnation of TAs and their managers; there’s lots of good work going on, I know, and it is crucial that we reach out to as many children as possible with that good work. Do I think excellent use of TAs is the end point for inclusion? No, not at all. It’s a step on the road to true inclusion. But the road is long! I hope we reach a point where all students needs are met without any kind of segregation and that parents are given genuine choice when they look at their local school options for their kids. Right now, though, I hope every student that needs it has access to a really great TA.

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