The reasons our schools don’t need teaching assistants.

Never one to pass up on the opportunity to defend my position, here are my thoughts and my counter-argument to this post from the www.educationforeverybody.co.uk website and Twitter account.

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.

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6 thoughts on “The reasons our schools don’t need teaching assistants.

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think we have reached a point now where there is no benchmark in education (I’m referring particularly to SEND now, as that is where most of my experience has come from) from which best practice or dos & dont’s can be learned from. It feels very much a pot luck situation, where parents (mainly) will accept the best of a bad job in order to secure some sort of ‘adequate’ provision for their child with SEN or who is disabled, or both. They are terrified of the alternatives.

    SEND is a huge business now, for LAs who control the funding of statements and EHCPS, for solicitors and barristers who make money from parents and LAs in conflict, and in business there are commodities with a price-tag ie children. If our children were costing the country huge amounts of money, the SEND reforms would have involved cost cutting measures, but they didn’t. On paper the reforms cost ££££££ more than the old system, but it’s ok, because LAs flout the law, and the govt are, in effect, encouraging them to do it because it saves money and there is no comeback. This is what needs to be addressed – blatant lack of accountability.

    You are right, why should we just allow things to continue because they might be papering over a huge crack. The crack needs to be filled, and unless the root causes are challenged, the expectations many people have for disabled children (who become adults) will become lower and lower until no-one will expect a child with SEND to attend a mainstream school, ever. I believe the situation with SEND is out of control, and I admire what you are doing!

    • Thank you so much for your comments. You are absolutely right and, sadly, the problems we see in schools/the education system is simply a micro-example of attitudes and actions towards those with disabilities in society as a whole; this is a huge part of the problem of putting things right. In education and beyond we have come to accept a second rate shambles of an approach towards meeting the needs of the vulnerable… I was so sad to read the article that inspired me to write this article. A crutch propping up a broken system? Surely our children deserve more! To me it is common sense that enabling our vulnerable learners to be successful will create a new workforce, more diverse communities, and a better quality of life for, well, for everyone.
      The thing that concerns me the most when I am writing is that I know there are so many professionals and parents who are already working on this. I’m a SENCo that doesn’t agree with the existence of the SENCo role! There are TA’s, teachers/schools with TA’s, parents and professionals who really are trying to get the best out of the system we have available to us. The thing that frightens me is the acceptance of this system as the best we can do.
      It feels like a drop in the ocean but this is an issue we cannot give up on. I feel supported by my own setting and by an amazing community of people on Twitter that are all doing their bit to move things forward. Chipping away at the brick wall in the hope that we can shake the foundations. It’s frustrating, but we can’t give up! Be a cannon 🙂

  2. I agree fully with what you’re saying here. The article from the UK is just perpetuating myths. TAs hold schools together? Um, no, I think teachers do that!
    I also agree with your point about why on earth would we would put the least educated people with the most complex and at-risk students? It still boggles my mind that there is such a focus by teachers and parents on getting a TA for a child, when the research shows that what really matters for any student is the amount of contact they have with a qualified teacher. So we want to give them less?? It’s as though people think that a TA will fix everything. In reality, research shows that TAs can be detrimental to learning and social participation, which goes against the work we are trying to do in inclusion in the first place.
    Julie Causton-Theoharis has done some great work on paraprofessionals, and my favorite article of hers is The Golden Rule (which you can find here if you haven’t already seen it: http://connectedteachers.weebly.com/uploads/7/4/6/3/7463491/the_golden_rule_of_providing_support_in_inclusive_classrooms_1.pdf). It’s a bit older now, but still very relevant, I think.
    It’s amazing to me how long it takes to convince teachers and parents of best (or at least promising) practices in inclusion.
    It’s my first time reading your blog- thanks for the tag on Twitter!

    • Thanks for you lovely comments! Always happy to find someone likeminded. And thanks for the link – I don’t know it so will definitely be checking it out. I think parents fight for a TA because they know the teacher hasn’t been trained to meet their child’s needs, isn’t expected to and probably won’t. Getting a TA enables them to drop their kid off on a morning and know that someone, at least, is watching out for them. It’s got to take reform at the national scale but, failing that, it’s up to individual schools to show parents that there’s a better option and that their child will be safe, happy and learning. Thanks again ☺️

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