Market obsessives and state haters have led the backlash against teaching assistants.
Jon Richards is national secretary of Education and Children’s Services at Unison
On 18 March the ever diligent Alex Cunningham MP will lead a parliamentary debate on Teaching Assistants (TAs)*, an underrated and put upon group of professionals.
Under the last government there was a significant expansion of classroom support. This was designed to free up teachers to let them focus on what they do best: teaching. The last government also worked with UNISON and sister unions to set up a national body to improve pay and standards, and give support staff professional guidance to fulfil their new roles.
Unfortunately this government’s austerity drive has undermined much of this work and the inevitable backlash has come from the market obsessives and state haters in the Treasury and the Reform think tank.
Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, the right-wing have cherry picked evidence from the limited amount of research on the impact that TAs have on pupil attainment, and suggested they are not effective and so should be axed.
To be fair to Michael Gove and his advisers, they did not attack teaching assistants (it was the Mail online that called them a ‘mums army’). Nor have they said they should be subject to wholesale sacking.
However the English government has largely been indifferent to anyone working in schools beyond Heads and teachers, cutting national training programmes and banishing website resources to the archives – even though support staff make up 50 per cent of the workforce.
More recently there has been a notable warming, UNISON has contributed to a forthcoming report by the Department for Education (DfE) which looks at TA deployment. The Wales government has gone much further with proposals to register support staff and an action plan to promote and develop their role.
There are other signs of encouragement – last November UNISON held a Celebration Day for TAs, to counter the negative message and highlight positive examples of work which directly improved pupils’ education. An online survey of TAs which saw us receive 8,000 responses in a couple of weeks, showed their dedication and commitment and gave us over 800 examples of positive impact.
Encouragingly newer research from the Education Endowment Foundation using randomised control testing has provided clear evidence that teaching assistants can improve numeracy and literacy.
Additionally, researchers from the Institute of Education who produced the biggest research report into the use of support staff, whose report was used as a evidence against TAs, have questioned this interpretation and written a positive book: Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants.
What is crucial in TA deployment is proper training and development in delivering specific interventions. We know well-trained TAs can make a difference. What we need is to share more best practice about how they are trained and deployed
Of course it is not just pupil attainment that TAs can excel in: specialist support for disadvantaged or pupil with special needs, pastoral care, support to teachers to ease the pressure and their role as links to their local community are vital in a modern school environment.
Other UNISON surveys show how school leaders and the public value TAs. All this work is done on low pay. A full time worker would usually earn between £12-£17 thousand – however the vast majority of TAs work part time, often on term time contracts and many have to have more than one job to survive.
UNISON is not sitting on its laurels: flat-lining education budgets, rising costs and increasing pupil population mean that job cuts are already happening and are only likely to get worse. The background noise from Reform/Treasury gives a nice excuse for schools to target TA jobs and we are countering mis-information at school level and showing that what looks like an easy cut could have serious long term impact on pupils’ education.
UNISON wants to push forward this nascent profession. We have been working with the National Education Trust (an independent charitable foundation dedicated to the promotion and sharing of excellent practice and innovation in education) on the future of teaching assistants.
We have made a long list of recommendations for improvements including: access to high quality continued professional development; Joint planning time; leadership/management support; good practice resources on TA deployment; and one of our main pieces of work the introduction of professional standards for all TAs. We will expand on these recommendations in forthcoming months.
With positive evidence growing, popular support and a growing professional standing, teaching assistants will increasingly become a vital workforce in schools. The government would be foolish to continue to ignore them.
* Teaching assistants are called classroom assistants, learning support assistants and other job titles in different schools in different parts of the UK
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