Firstly, I can’t seem to find an ‘about’ page or similar, manifesto or mission statement, on the website but, based on the title, I’m pretty sure we are fighting on the same side of the same battle here. And I agree with so much of what is written in the article – there is a problem in the education system and something needs to be done about it. The solution, however, is not teaching assistants… and here’s why.
I too wonder if parents of children with additional needs stop and think about who is supporting their child in the classroom. I wonder if they think about why their child – the child that needs more in order to be successful – is placed increasingly with the least qualified members of staff. This approach, surely, is counter-intuitive. If those children for whom learning is most difficult, and those for whom effective classroom management is most crucial, do not require the input of those who are pedagogically trained, then I guess no child does.
From reading the article I’m left unsure as to whether it appertains specifically to either secondary or primary, mainstream or special, but actually, I don’t think it makes much difference. My own assertion that TA’s are not the answer comes, inevitably, from my own standpoint in a mainstream secondary school. The concept, however, carries to other areas within education. For my students – a diverse and complex comprehensive inner city intake – there are students who require the socio-emotional support of a mentor, and students with physical and sensory needs who may require practical assistance, but only pedagogically trained subject specialist teachers teach. I do realise that early years and special education settings have increased care and supervision requirements and employing people to these roles is crucial… but still, only qualified teachers should teach.
This is a gripe against received wisdoms, easy options and the current inclusion paradigm. It isn’t a personal vendetta against teaching assistants. The very nature of the role is likely to attract people who genuinely care and want to make a difference. What’s more, there are many teaching assistants whose skills and hard work genuinely add value to their students’ education. These TA’s are basically underpaid and, often, undervalued teachers. With limited opportunity and incentive to filter applicants by qualification or proven skill, finding these effective examples of TA’s is mainly down to pot luck. It’s not a chance I want to take with my most vulnerable learners.
I might protest the use of teaching assistants less vehemently if it wasn’t for the lack of evidence that the system churns out successful learning disabled adults. With only 6.6% of learning disabled adults in education, but a reported 65% desiring to be so, I find it hard not to look to the current common approach to learning disability support in mainstream schools – the risk of the use of TA’s to foster velcroing, learnt dependency and, ultimately, the buffering of the student’s access to qualified teachers – as at least one source of blame for this lack of success. Another guilty party could be the inflexible and closed-minded businesses and organisations that could be offering employment opportunities. Maybe because they’re run by people who were educated to believe that those with additional needs would be taken off and looked after elsewhere.
“The [TA’s] work as a crutch for a system that is crippling under… [several examples]”
I couldn’t agree more. But surely this isn’t an argument to keep this broken, propped up system? Surely this is an indication that we need to develop an education system that doesn’t need propping up? A system where there are enough teachers per school to fully meet the needs of the students, where those staff are trained to meet a diverse range of needs, and schools that are designed to keep of their student safe whilst encouraging increasing levels of independence? I’m not saying that achieving this would be easy, but who goes into teaching because they think it will be easy? Ultimately, achieving a high quality education system, that meets the needs of all students equally, is not optional; this is what we should be working towards. Surely ‘education for everybody’ means an equal quality – equally high quality – education for every child and, to that end, the least able/most vulnerable student should be with the most qualified/experienced member of staff. In fact, all of our little learners deserve equal access to qualified, subject specialist staff.
Removing teaching assistants from schools is not like removing nurses from hospitals because unlike TA’s, who commonly ‘act up’ to the teacher role, nurses stick to the tasks for which they are trained; they don’t perform surgery when there’s a shortage of doctors.
A sad reality, though, is that many parents of children with additional needs cannot imagine their vulnerable little one learning and being safe without the support of their TA and, worse still, they’re probably right; how many schools would be able to achieve true equality for their additional educational needs and disabled students? It is time to start looking at alternative, more equitable, systems and thinking about how we can fix the aspects of the system that are failing our vulnerable learners. And I know that my school isn’t the only school that’s operating a different approach; I dare say there are a range of different options that are better than the one that’s currently prevailing. But teaching assistants are not the answer.