Teaching Assistants – A Waste Of Money?

Should we get rid of teaching assistants?

Professor John Hattie calls them “amateurs” but many teachers call them “unsung heroes” and “an absolute God-send” – without them some schools would struggle to cope.

Teaching assistants (TAs) are in the news again after Hattie said that their rising number in England’s classrooms is part of a “creeping amateurism” in schools.

I see this creeping amateurism coming into our business. I know in your country now, over 20 per cent of your salary budget – 20 per cent – you pay to the amateurs.

When Hattie speaks people tend to sit up and listen as he is an internationally renowned education academic. He was speaking at the Association of School and College Leaders’ annual conference and his comments have caused quite a stir in some quarters – the wise respond, the otherwise react.

So, is the bulge in the number of TAs ‘toxic’ and are they are a glorious waste of money when what schools really need are trained professionals?

Hattie isn’t saying any of this without some evidence. His research has shown that TAs “systematically” have the lowest impact on students’ learning and their “effects size is down the bottom”. So many schools assign TAs to children who actually need the most help and expertise yet TAs are the least equipped or qualified to help.

Vulnerable learners need maximum expertise and many TAs can’t meet their academic learning needs. The cutting-edge of data can makes us wise but data doesn’t see the parts TAs have maximum impact in such as social and emotional skills.

As far as spending goes, then yes, TAs have swallowed up funding so if they are making little or no impact then why are schools putting their faith in them? 380,000 (TAs) are employed across the country, at an annual public cost of some £5 billion so the figure is huge.

Are TAs worth it?

It depends. I’ve worked with some outstanding TAs who have no or few qualifications and have made massive contributions to the life of the school and in particular to the lives of children. These people have been amazing in lots of ways beyond the data.

Then again, I’ve worked with some unprofessional, clueless and lazy TAs with really poor maths and literacy who couldn’t care less. Then there are those that interfere and think they know best when they actually know very little.

The problem is, TAs have no professional status and it is very easy for someone to ‘become a TA’. Fancy a change? Then become a TA because “it’s just working with kids”.

TAs are needed in schools and according to the Effective Deployment of Teaching Assistants (EDTA) project there are three key factors we need to consider: their deployment, their interaction with TAs and their preparedness.

To learn more about these areas and what positive impact can look like then a must see video is as follows:

The 2015 Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Guidance Report ‘Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants’ made 7 recommendations to maximise the impact of teaching assistants based on the best research evidence:

  1. TAs should not be used as an informal teaching resource for low-attaining pupils
  2. Use TAs to add value to what teachers do, not replace them
  3. Use TAs to help pupils develop independent learning skills and manage their own learning
  4. Ensure TAs are fully prepared for their role in the classroom
  5. Use TAs to deliver high quality one-to-one and small group support using structured interventions
  6. Adopt evidence-based interventions to support TAs in their small group and one-to-one instruction
  7. Ensure explicit connections are made between learning from everyday classroom teaching and structured interventions

The evidence in the report is unambiguous: poor TA deployment has a negative impact on attainment; effective TA deployment can have positive impacts.

Ugrading TAs to ‘professionals’ is a priority yet we still don’t have any professional standards in place.

In 2015, the then Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan bizarrely axed draft standards which would have been published as non-statutory advice.

The DfE did, however, allow UNISONNAHTNUT, and Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) to publish a set of Professional Standards for TAs. The resource is enormously helpful, but the government was not involved in its creation.

Hattie is right, TAs are amateurs but we need to a common framework and professional standards that will elevate their status and role so they become a truly recognised and valuable part of education system.


See my blog for Third Space Learning – What Do The Best Schools Do to Make Effective Use of Their Teaching Assistants

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