Teaching assistant – we need a clear career structure for TAs, now

Historically, the role has been shrouded in uncertainty. Now, more than ever, we need support for training and guidance says Sara Alston…

Sara Alston
by Sara Alston
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In most – if not all – UK primary schools, teaching assistants (TAs) are seen as an integral part of the staffing structure.

But the exact nature of their role – and the expectations made of them – is hugely varied.

This uncertainty can make fulfilling the role difficult, especially if a school doesn’t have a clear outline of required duties.

This needs to change; not just for the benefit of TAs and teachers, but for the children they support.  

So where have today’s TAs come from, and why aren’t there standards? Well, the role has essentially developed by stealth.

There have always been additional adults in classrooms – whether older pupils in Victorian classrooms, or parent helpers more common in the 20th century – but they were not expected to actually teach the children in any way other than perhaps hearing them read.  

Somehow, however, modern TAs (in most settings) are usually much more focused on supporting and promoting learning.

This change has grown over the last half century, and is rooted in major policy changes in education that were not directly related to the role of the TA. For example: 

Changes in SEND and approach to inclusion 

Until The Warnock report in 1978, children with special needs were regarded as ‘handicapped’, largely excluded from mainstream settings, and placed in special schools and institutions.  

Enshrined in the 1981 Education Act, The Warnock report started the move to increased inclusion in mainstream schools, and replaced the term ‘handicapped’ with ‘special educational needs’ (SEN).

This led to a requirement for additional adult support within classrooms.

Over time, TAs have become, in many schools, the default form of support for children with a high level of SEN, particularly if they have an education health care plan (EHCP).

This has been an organic development born out of necessity, but without any formal planning, per se.  

Raising standards and workload agendas 

Since the 1980s, alongside the reframing of the approach to SEN, there has been an increased emphasis on raising educational attainment, leading to the implementation of the National Curriculum from 1989 and the birth of Ofsted in 1992.

These increased the pressures on school staff and fed into a growing concern about teachers’ recruitment, retention and workload. 

This, in turn, led to ‘The National Agreement’ (2003) between the government, employers and school workforce unions, aimed at tackling these concerns.

It established expectations for ‘the increased use of staff who are not qualified teachers to work in a range of teaching and support roles’.

This directive included a list of 25 administrative and clerical tasks to be passed from teachers to support staff (including those in the office, etc), but again, did not set out a clear job description or training programme for TAs.  

Supplement support 

TAs these days, then, have many different duties, usually directly involved in learning and providing wider non-pedagogical support.

But this is still largely unregulated, with huge variations from school to school, and the government hasn’t provided a clear policy (arguably due to a lack of understanding about the role TAs actually play).

Despite an attempt to introduce TA standards in 2016, and years of work from the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) projects and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), there are just four statements in government guidance about teaching assistants.

These highlight that the teacher remains responsible and accountable for all the children in their class and that TAs should ‘supplement rather than replace support from teachers’.  

So, not only is the exact nature of their role and duties unclear, but TAs have no formal career structure, recommended training or even a requirement for line management and appraisal. This seems ludicrous for such an essential role.  

In short, it is time for us to reconsider how we train and deploy our TAs. We need to start this process by changing the emphasis from them being seen as assistants to the teacher, to focusing on their role as professional learning support assistants (LSAs) who specialise in promoting children’s learning.

This needs to be underpinned by a proper career structure which identifies and reflects their value in schools.

Without this, they will remain vulnerable to ongoing threats of cuts and job losses, which in turn increases the vulnerability of the children they support.  

Sara Alston is an independent consultant and trainer with SEA Inclusion and Safeguarding, and a practising SENCo.

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