So, there’s been some new research and it shows that TAs can add value, in terms of progress, for an individual or small group. But let’s not get carried away now, eh!?
To start with, this is not new information; didn’t we already know that a great TA can add value to the learning experience of some our most vulnerable students? There is, of course, such a thing as a great TA. One who has knowledge, expertise and experience, and supports in such a way that their student(s) develop independence, resilience and social skills. The problem is that this isn’t consistent, or even common, because TAs are not subject to the same baseline expectation or accountability as a teacher. The problem is that TAs are placed with our most vulnerable learners – the very children who will require their academic experience to be held to account to the highest degree if they are to be successful – and that this enables teachers who have not been given sufficient training or accountability for SEND at ITT/NQT to outsource responsibility, at least to an extent, for some of their students. The problem is that, if we attribute a value to pedagogical knowledge and training, then all learners should have equal and unbuffered access to it. The problem is at the societal and systemic level – our approach to meeting special educational needs in school reveals our attitude towards disability in society – not with individual TAs; the most effective are just undervalued and underpaid teachers, the least effective have not been given the training, expectation or pay to allow us to expect any different.
The reality is, however, that TA support is the way that students with additional needs are able to access a mainstream school right now, so any evidence that gives us strategies to get the most out of that approach has got to be a good thing. For our lowest ability and most vulnerable children to be successful right now, it is crucial that the current system is used to its full potential… but that doesn’t mean that we accept this system as the best we can offer our students.
There’s some new research, but there are questions to be asked about it and how it fits into the bigger picture of SEND education and education as a whole, and whether it can enable us to move on from seeing these two things as separate entities.
Just how positive is this research?
Consider this quote from the article on the Education Endowment Foundation’s website:
The latest research, however, shows that when TAs are used in a focused way – to deliver structured, high-quality support to small groups or individual children – pupils make an additional two to four months progress.
Actually, across the two studies there were some students who made an additional six months progress… and that’s got to be a good thing (although it would be nice to see some equivalent data from a control group), but is it the best quality provision we can offer? Does it tell us what our vulnerable learners can achieve when they receive an equitable – equal quality, and each child getting what they need – education alongside their more resilient peers? It might be a good way to maximise the impact of TAs, but that doesn’t mean that the use of TAs is the best option available.
How useful, reliable, and generalisable is this research?
The following information about the research is taken from the Guardian article written by Sally Weale and published on Friday 26th February 2016.
The first of the two studies looked at the impact of TAs teaching small groups of nursery and reception age children about topics such as time and what to wear, and isn’t very generalisable to my own mainstream secondary setting. The second study, however, is much more directly comparable:
In the second trial, a targeted reading support programme…, TAs were used to improve the reading skills of struggling readers in year seven and eight in secondary schools, with one-to-one sessions focused on reading loud three times a week for 20 weeks [5 months].
Pupils made the equivalent of four months’ additional progress, but those who took part in a version with a greater focus on language comprehension made six months’ progress.
Again, any additional progress has got to be a good thing,but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best thing. At my own school, all students are required to carry a book at all times, which they can read in moments of potential downtime (i.e., waiting for their daily assembly, morning meeting, to start) as well as for pleasure at break times et cetera if they want. Additionally, students ‘drop everything and read’ for 30 minutes every day. This is done in groups of around 18 students, with their adviser (like a form tutor, and always a teacher), and also includes opportunities to read aloud, read 1:1 with the adviser, to be read to, do comprehension tasks, write reviews and other activities. It is non-segregatory – the least able student is subject to the same high expectations as the most able, and the most able have the same level of support and individualisation as the least able; what they need and when they need it – and what’s more, it isn’t a one off injection of support; a little boost to create a leap froward in what is likely to have been (and continue to be) a lifelong literacy need. Our approach instills an independence, autonomy and habit (and, hopefully, a love!) of reading that will have a long term and ongoing impact on their progress, even beyond school and into their adulthood. Our students make, on average, one month additional progress for each month they age, although there have been examples of students making 4+ years reading age progress in one school year.
Finally, it’s probably best to include this quote from the Guardian article as well:
The evaluation of the study expressed reservations about these findings, however, because the trial was smaller than expected and had to be phased because of delays recruiting schools. there were also concerns that almost 30% of pupils did not complete all of the tests at the end of the project.
Whilst TAs remain the go-to option for supporting children with additional needs in mainstream schools, and moving forward from that seems barely even visible on the horizon so, for the time being at least, it’s important that we get the best out of the approach that we can. I’m just not sure that this research is helpful in achieving educational equity for all children. All the time we continue to persuade ourselves that use of TAs is good enough for our most vulnerable learners we are also reassuring ourselves that a segregated approach is okay, that less progress is okay, that lower employment rates as adults are okay, and that children with additional needs are somehow different; they don’t need a teacher.
We already knew, didn’t we, that when a TA is used ‘in a focused way’, and when they’re ‘delivering structured, high-quality support’, they have more impact than TAs who are used in an unfocused and unstructured way to deliver low-quality support. The headline, ‘teaching assistants improve pupils’ results, studies show’, belies the small scale, questionable quality and fairly minimal impact of the studies but provides a further setback in achieving true equity in education for our most vulnerable students.
There is no such thing as SEND and non-SEND children, there are only children.
All children will be enabled to thrive and succeed when we stop seeing and providing for them by category and start meeting their needs as unique individuals who all deserve the same high expectations, high quality and rigorous accountability, and all deserve the same level of individualisation, nurture and support.
So, still ‘no TA’.