This article was originally posted in Headteacher Update 11/5/17.
Are your school’s teaching assistants effective? Or perhaps we should ask: do you train, deploy and manage them effectively. Daniel Sobel says that poor use of TAs can harm student outcomes. He explains how to carry out an effective audit of your TA provision.
Before we step any further, I don’t want to be accused of being anti-TA, especially when I have vociferously spoken out quite publicly about the benefits of teaching assistants for a school.
The teaching assistant debate, sparked by research into their effectiveness, gave schools the false impression that teaching assistants were not worth much. My argument, both then and now, is that it has nothing to do with teaching assistants themselves and everything to do with how they are trained, strategically deployed and line managed.
Their varying quality and positive or negative impact on student outcomes is only usually as good as the extent to which they are managed and the quality of the person thinking about how best to use them – which is nearly always the SENCO.
I know from first-hand experience and strongly advocate that teaching assistants can be the best financial investment for a school.
What I want to see is the role of teaching assistant elevated in respect, where the essential teaching assistants are of fantastic value and significant to every school.
However, the wrong/ineffective deployment of teaching assistants can be a serious impediment to a student’s progress. When a teaching assistant is deployed without sufficient training, without weekly line management support and with no regular measure of impact, then the research has shown, and we all know from personal experience, that the teaching assistant is likely to be getting in the way of learning, let alone promoting curriculum engagement.
The discussion in this article need not be a rehash of the qualities of the teaching assistant and the inherent problems with mismanaging them, as this is now well established. The issue we need to address is just how many teaching assistants you need in your school and how can you accurately make that calculation? This equation is not straightforward as it comes with its own set of myths and hurdles. I hope to lay out a set of guidelines for you to think about your own school.
I shall not put my head in the sand and ignore the fact that the obvious starting point for nearly every school is going to be financial. However, I don’t think that a pre-emptive calculation about how many teaching assistants you need is fair to the students or the teaching assistants because you will simply get it wrong. Furthermore, why go through all of the effort of changing job descriptions and making redundancies when you are not certain that you are going to get the best outcomes anyway?
My team and I have now carried out a spate of urgent teaching assistant reviews, clearly in response to the growing crisis in school budgets. In every school where we have reviewed the deployment of teaching assistants, we have found the school was spending at least £120,000 more than necessary.
So there are significant savings to be made. However, if you do this right, it is an opportunity to rethink your strategy for the outcomes of your most vulnerable students and that is where you should be looking to gain the most.
Two myths to bust about TA deployment
Let’s quickly put to rest the most common myth that heads ask me: “But don’t we need to allocate teaching assistants according to the hours on the Education, Health and Care Plan?” The answer is an emphatic “no” – with one exception: unless the EHCP explicitly states “in-class teaching assistant support of X hours”. Even then, it is nearly always inappropriate to “Velcro” support to a student in the mainstream.
So, just to clarify, unless it explicitly states the teaching assistant hours are to be used for one-to-one in-class support, then no, you don’t need to allocate teaching assistants per hour. This myth is a left-over of the old system of Statements which allocated support per student. What changed on paper (as opposed to in the minds of most heads) is that EHCPs are meant to be constructed around “outcomes”, which should mean the need to adapt diverse types of support over time.
The teaching assistant allocation should nearly always be generic and this implies lots of different types of use of a teaching assistant and most often it is simply the availability of a teaching assistant in a class to draw on (rather than rely on). Theoretically then, you could have five students in the same class with an allocation of 20-plus hours of teaching assistant support and it would be fine to use one teaching assistant to meet their needs in class. Of course, this is only possible with the proper teaching assistant training, management and support.
Which brings us squarely to our second myth: teaching assistants should only deliver support for SEN students. No they absolutely should not!
The new Teaching Standards, Ofsted inspection framework and SEND Code of Practice think of teachers as “teachers of all students” and this means, when you observe a teacher, you want to see them actively engaging with and leading the teaching for SEN students.
An uncareful management of teaching assistants actually eclipses this role for the teacher and consequently the student. Most of what I find on EHCPs can actually be delivered by classroom teachers – and I don’t mean in a burdensome time management problem way, I mean just by good ol’ quality first teaching. Teaching assistants should not be used to enable teachers to focus on everyone else but the SEN students – this is demeaning to them both.
A simple goal
There are three questions your audit should answer for you:
- Is the current form of teaching assistant deployment effective?
- What strategy would maximise the impact of the teaching assistants?
- Therefore, how many teaching assistants are needed to meet the needs of the students?
Some schools use the findings of their audit to dissolve their current teaching assistant roles and re-establish a new job description more in keeping with what is required by the SEND Code of Practice, Ofsted and the Department for Education (DfE). In order to do this with confidence, you will need details about how the role isn’t working presently versus what would work. The aim of the audit then is to provide you with sufficient evidence to be able to take such action, be confident in your expenditure and ensure you have value for money while maximising the impact on student outcomes.
Surely, we must work out all the needs of the students, work out which classes they are in and then divvy up support. Easy, right? End of article?
The trap to avoid
In one school where we carried out this audit, we found 37 teaching assistants to meet the needs of 42 SEN students (with 11 EHCPs). We found that:
- The guidance in the Individual Support Plans (ISPs – advice to teachers) did not always support the outcomes in the EHCP.
- The teaching assistants were not actively line-managed, and there was a lack of clarity around what they were doing in the classroom.
- There was no evidence that the teaching assistants are trained sufficiently to meet the specific needs of students.
- There was no consistent gathering of impact data for student progress which partly explained why the SEN students did not make sufficient progress.
- The strategy of teaching assistant deployment had evolved organically rather than being planned and carefully executed.
- There was a strict adherence to matching “hours” stated on EHCPs to providing one-to-one support, which tied up valuable and scarce resource (and is in opposition to the findings of the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff report of 2009).
- The teaching assistant was left to “get on” according to how they thought the student best needed supporting (this tied in with the lack of useful written and management guidance for them, their lack of training and lack of impact measures).
What is common about the above findings and precisely what you need to avoid is that the most challenging and vulnerable students in the school are left to the teaching assistant, who are forced to make untrained, unmeasured and ill-informed decisions about these students’ educational needs.
However, the trap you will fall into if you don’t tackle this carefully is not addressing the above key concerns and being left with even fewer teaching assistants to do whatever it is they think best for the most complicated students. At its heart, the teaching assistant audit has much less to do with teaching assistants and more to do with student needs and how they can be best met. Here now follows some guidelines for your TA Audit
Step 1: A view of all the relevant documents
- EHCPs and any other SEN files or information, all advice to teachers and teaching assistants regarding students – ask yourself if they are aligned. Do the outcomes on the EHCPs match the advice to teachers? Is the advice to teachers meaningful and useful or, as we find often, vague?
- Tracking or logging information about student progress in or outside of the classroom (e.g. interventions or social skills) – ask yourself how detailed and useful the tracking information is. Does it actually give you what you need to make decisions about interventions and support?
- An outline of the current teaching assistant structure and roles, their training handbook, their line management and/or observation results. Any information that shows how teaching assistants are guided, who by and the structure for liaison with classroom teachers or the SENCO in support of student outcomes. Any log or detail about teaching assistant CPD and how it may meet the needs of student outcomes – are your teaching assistants trained to meet the needs of your students and are they line managed every other week with very specific SMART targets?
Ultimately, you should be able to clearly see what the “student need” is and judge how equipped the teaching assistants are to actually support that need.
Step 2: Pause and consider two broad questions
First, consider the management aspects of the teaching assistants. A useful exercise can be to imagine that you are a new teaching assistant to the school. Ask the SENCO or teaching assistant manager to explain in detail your initiation, how you get your training and guidance and look at the information you are provided with. Now you should be able to answer the question about whether you would have enough detailed guidance and support to drive student progress. How often are you to be line managed, have targets set, and engage in CPD? Is the school really getting the very most of you? How often are you liaising with teachers and are the they working with you in a respectful and collaborative way to maximise the outcomes of the students? As a teaching assistant, are you clear what “student outcomes” mean, specifically what they are per student and how you can support them?
Second, consider you are an EHCP or SEN student in your school – what is your ideal level of support? What do you really need to progress? In trying to answer this, draw on your best source of understanding – your training and experience. Shut out parent, student and teacher voice – the question is looking for an expert pedagogical response. What does this student need?
Most times you will come back to the same simple pedagogic principles of fostering independence and maximising participation in class. The obvious next question then is what sort of support does a student need to attain that? Do not do this exercise for every student, especially those with mild learning difficulties, without consulting specialist advice. The value for you is:
- You get to think about what your most vulnerable students need.
- You can really draw on your experience and think about what outstanding pedagogy is without the pressures from agencies, parents and staff.
- You can pause and consider whether your current teaching assistant deployment is set to meet your standards and what shape outstanding teaching assistant support needs to take.
Step 3: Re-read the EHCPs and consider the most effective way the outcomes can be met
Consider the following excerpt from one teaching assistant audit report: “There are currently two teaching assistants across two classes and it is not clear which students they support. In addition, there are two teaching assistants individually assigned to two EHCP students: one for 25 hours the other 20 hours. Both these students are in the same class. ISPs are used by the SENCO to distribute information to the teaching assistants and teachers following reviews. The current strategies are inconsistent and ineffective because they are not specific, measurable and are not personalised. The teachers do not effectively liaise with and guide the teaching assistants and consequently the teaching assistant is used in an unspecified way to help with no sense of whether this is positive in outcome or otherwise.”
The above is an example of deployment that makes no use of the EHCP outcomes. This is what outcome-led thinking could look like:
- EHCP outcome states: Communication and interaction – to be able to hold a conversation. In this case, the speech and language therapist could advise the teacher about how they are able to best interact with the student. This will be useful CPD for the teacher, will not take long to arrange and is something the teacher can use in every lesson without any preparation.
- nEHCP outcome states: Cognition and learning – to use alternative methods of recording work. In this case a teaching assistant could be used to help the teacher prepare chunked work and mind maps. The teacher knows what is happening with their student and the strategies and interventions match the curriculum.
This is an opportunity for you to consider all EHCP outcomes and you should find that the vast majority can be delivered in simple, easy, non-burdensome ways by the classroom teacher and the teaching assistant’s role is then simply to support the teacher in organising this.
Step 4: Write your investigation into an audit report
The report is based around the findings of a forensic exploration and covers:
- Whether the SEN admin staff are having a positive impact on student outcomes.
- If classroom-based teaching assistants are having a positive impact on student outcomes.
- A comparison of current teaching assistant deployment against required teaching assistant deployment for one or two year groups in as much detail as is available.
- An impact comparison of current teaching assistant deployment with two random students against the required deployment for those two students.
- Recommendation of teaching assistant numbers required for back office.
- Recommendation of teaching assistant numbers in the classroom.
Teaching assistants in EYFS through to year 1 should be deployed in ratio to students. Going forward, your teaching assistant deployment should be based on:
- A careful selection process, effective training and line management every other week with SMART targets.
- Teachers who are supported in understanding how to implement strategies in their classrooms and work together closely with the teaching assistant.
- Impact measures (tracked and logged weekly and reviewed regularly).
And after carrying out a review, the school should consider:
- Rewriting the teaching assistant job description.
- A reselection process of teaching assistants.
- A training programme for both learning support assistants and teachers.
- Rewriting advice to staff around maximising student outcomes.
A final word
The most valuable result of the above is reviewing what the students really need and how the current support system is meeting those needs.
This simple formula can be applied across all issues in all inclusion groups: what is the need and what are we doing effectively to meet that need?