So You Want To Be A Teaching Assistants

A Review of The ATL Teaching Assistant Findings

Job Title

Most support staff (40%) are employed under the label of Teaching Assistant (TA) or Learning Support Assistant (LSA) with the array of other labels been used in a relatively low frequency (20%).  The Higher Level Teaching Assistant (HLTA) is still a relatively rare occurrence (17%) but only a 76% of HLTA were paid at the specified rate.  This suggests that schools are providing a learning support package which is focused on one-to-one or small group intervention and there seems little point of training to be a HLTA (55%).  We can also assume that other labels such as mentors are used to provide specific support packages.

Roles, Duties and Responsibilities

Support workers are likely to be involved in three main areas a) exam invigilation, b) group work and c) lesson cover.

  • Small Group Work

Support workers typical deliver small groups (40%) on daily or weekly (26%) basis which is supported by the number of TA or LSA (40%) who are employed within schools.  However, it is not clear what intervention these small groups are targeting but considering the curriculum needs it is likely to be numeracy, literacy and specific educational needs of individual students.

  • Lesson Cover

Support workers can expect to provide limited cover for other support staff (38%) and teachers (36%) during absence or illness which is supported by the number of support staff who undertook lesson cover (32%). Where lesson cover is provided it is likely to be daily or weekly which is a cause for concern for human resources, budgeting, support worker training needs and has litigation implications for the school.

Although 55% of support staff said that they did not provide cover for teaching staff they did provide cover for other support staff which has increased (22%).  This suggests that the use of teaching assistants to cover teaching staff who are ill or absence from the classroom is not widespread across the sector.

With regard to the provision of lesson cover support staff said that when providing cover they had to use teaching skills (72%) and needed to modify pre-set work (45%) and believed that the cover they provided was no different to a supply teacher (63%).  Suggesting that the training program offered to support staff need to include lesson delivery skills and lesson planning skills. The logical assumption which much be accept in the absence of further data is that the quality of learning is below the Ofsted standard of Good based on a lack of formal teaching qualifications (7%) associated with the role of the support workers.

Working Hours and Conditions

Support staff are working more than 21hrs per week (86%) and undertaking additional hours (70%) which is due to workload demands (67%).  It is very likely (74%) that support staff do not get paid for additional hours which have increased compared to last year (68%).  Suggesting that support staff are taking on ownership and professional responsibility for their performance within the school.

The additional working hours are related to more demands from students with behavioural or educational needs (74%) which is likely to be related to the statutory requirements of the inclusion policy, along with the increase diagnosis of students additional learning needs.  Although 49% of support workers indicated that the additional working hours were due to taking on extra duties and responsibilities.

The employment trend suggests that most support workers have contracts which mirror the school timetable and offer few additional hours outside of the timetabled day. However, 52% of support staff are on a yearly contract but the survey does not make it clear to the nature of the contract regarding pro-rata payment.

Nearly all support workers have a contract and job description (91%) but only 25% indicated that their job description was reviewed annually. Suggesting that the support workers performance management is not directly related to the terms and conditions outlined in their contract.  Although many schools may use a generic specification to allow for flexibility within the support worker provision.  As 60% of support workers said that the job description broadly represented their average working day.  However, there is a group of support workers (35%) who said that the job description does not reflect their current roles and responsibilities.

In terms of wages and pay agreements only 18% of support workers saw an increase in wage last year and very few support workers (16%) were paid an “enhanced rate” for undertaking additional duties such as lesson cover. Indicating that school management sees the provision of colleague (support worker) cover as part of the roles and responsibilities of a support worker.

Staff Training And Continued Professional Development (CPD)

Support workers stand a 50/50 (51%) chance of receiving an induction programing suggesting that schools are not delivering the required health and safety knowledge and skills to be both safe and maintain a safe workplace for staff and students.  It is also likely that support workers do not understand or are unaware of whole school policies which can be highlighted by the fact that 62% of support workers said that they did not know if their school had a rare cover policy.

Most support workers are paid for inset day (83%) but these often fall within the normal timetabled day (75%). With specific reference to CPD related to the role of the support worker, again they stand a 50/50 (53%) chance of attending offsite CPD.  Suggesting that schools are dependent on collective knowledge and skill sets offered by internal staff.

This approach to CPD could lead to a stagmentation in skills, knowledge and awareness of policy changes within the support team, reducing the quality of intervention and developing a sense of isolation.  This is support by the fact that 26% of support workers only received in house CPD and a further 28% had not asked for CPD.  Indicating that support do feel that they are able to access CPD or see no reason to undertaking CPD. Furthermore, 20% of support workers were told that there was no budget for CPD.

Qualifications and Awards

There are very few support workers who do not have a formal qualifications (13%) and most hold (31%) a NVQ level three award.  However, 35% of support workers hold qualifications between a foundation degree and the degree equivalent award.  This suggests that 66% of support workers have qualification at A’level or higher.  However, this does not translate into academic capacity as few support workers (10%) planned to take on line manager roles (3%) or become a teacher (7%).  To support this 35% of support workers said that they were happy with their current role and position but 30% indicated that they would be happy to progress within their current job role. This makes internal policies and support workers access to CPD critical.

Performance Management

Most school (85%) have a performance management system in place and of these 13% are based on performance related pay which represents a move towards support staff accountability.  To support this move 45% of support workers said that the school had a policy on lesson observations for support workers and 60% said that they had been observed by the senior leadership team within a whole class situation (87%) but most (64%) indicated that this was with a small group.  This highlights the critical need for support workers CPD and access to good pedagogical practice.

To quantify this point 71% of support workers have been in a classroom during an Ofsted lesson observation.  If the support worker does not have the correct skills to achieved the expectation of the Ofsted criteria for a good lesson then the teacher who is being observed will gain an unsatisfactory lesson grading.  This will be reflected in the overall Ofsted grade for the school.  However, 59%  of support workers feel that teachers are unskilled at deploying them within the classroom, suggesting that support workers are underused and underperforming.


The findings clearly and unmistakably indicate that support workers have limited training outside of the whole school training packaged provided for teachers.  In my experience this training does not tackle the pedagogical needs of teaching and/ or coaching of learners with specific learning needs which the findings suggest is the principle role of the support worker. It can be inferred from the data that schools believe it is the responsibility of the support worker to provide their own CPD or the support worker does not require specialised training to complete their specialised and specific intervention.

Support workers are expected to provide cover for other support workers during illness and absence with very few support workers indicating that they were providing cover for teachers.  Suggesting that other cover mechanisms are used to cover teaching staff during illness and absence, such as cover supervisors and supply teachers.

Working hours mirror the timetabled day and offer little overtime.  It is expected that the support worker undertakes unpaid overtime to complete paperwork and prepare for their daily duties as outlined in the job description.  The support worker is expected to perform to a baseline standard, which is monitored through lesson observations by the senior management.  Although the components of the assessment baseline are not identified by this study.  Performance management for support workers is common place but the assessment framework is unclear, as it typically does not relate to the support workers job description.  Performance related pay is starting to be used in schools but is a rare event.

ATL survey of teaching assistants 2013

Visualising Intervention – Pre & Post Assessment

How can we show that non-teacher intervention is working in school

Note: this article is based on working practice during 2005

Part of the Visualising Education Blog Series

It is clear that current and future developments within the education system are focused on using data to prove that change has taken place.  However, the question is what change or changes will support influence judgments about support staff. Personally, I believe that support staff should not be solely judged on the learners’ academic performance.  Support staff deliver a range of interventions aim at different areas of the learner’s holistic development e.g. behavioural, social and educational development (BSED).  Thus, the support worker performance or impact should be judged against the stated needs of the learner, creating three categories of performance or assessment which inferences three core skillsets wrapped in a clear understanding of pedagogical practice.

The biggest issue facing government, schools and support workers is how to show that the taxpayer is getting value for money from the pupil premium fund.  All too often this falls back on to the academic changes of the learners who have been supported by a support worker(s) which is funded by this pot of money. However, research from across the developed world shows that this is not a valid method of proving support workers impact.

There is a shift, back to the pre and post-baseline assessment of learners to show that intervention has made a difference to the individual child and young person.  The approach is a simple idea and can show progress in the learner’s development, which in turn can be used to argue that these developments have contributed to any academic improvements of the learner and those learners who share the learning environment, especially if the principal issue is behavioural or disruption.

Figure one shows the mean average of all intervention over one-half term (about six weeks) of 80 students using the Jane McSherry  Coping in School Survey. The graph has five sections and each section has five bars (columns) where the first three columns are indicator columns and the last two columns indicate the mean scores for pre-intervention and post-intervention.

Average Intervention Gains - Mean
Figure1) Average Intervention Gains – Mean – CISS Assessment

It can be seen that all sections or skillsets have achieved a mean increase after the half term intervention, except for the skillset ‘self and others.’ This was a consistent trend and only showed a marginal increase over the year. Even after focused changes to the intervention methods used to targeting this skillset. I would also like to draw your attention to the ‘self-management and behaviour’ skillset. The gains in this skillset were always consistently low.  Suggesting that intervention in these two skillsets needs to be specific and enduring which in turn needs to be reflected in any performance assessment of support workers.

This overarching data can inform areas like:

  • The deployment of support workers (based on the support worker skillsets) in relation to the learners specific needs
  • The training and CPD needs of the support staff to target weak areas
  • The overall impact or difference that the support team has had over that half term

WARNING: Finally, take a moment to consider which assessment you are using to show the impact of the support team.  There are many different assessments which test many different aspects of the learner and equally have different copyright conditions. Be very clear about what you want the assessment to show.  For example, if you want the assessment to show the learners attitude to school and learning then there is no point completing a self-esteem test.

Once you have selected an assessment you now need to consider the ethical and moral issues around implementing it. If you have chosen an assessment used by health professionals to support mental health assessment and your data shows that the learner is severely depressed, what will the school put in place to support that child to guard against liability or even worse, self-harm. Also, do you have the (ethical) right to implement the assessment without informed consent from the parent and/ or the child.

Part of the Visualising Education Blog Series

Teachers and Teaching Assistants – Entrenched Confusion

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) report (edited by Neill 2002) explored the teachers perception of the teaching assistant and showed that teacher felt that teaching assistants provide pastoral support to targeted pupils. However, there has been a move over the past ten years to assessing the teaching assistants impact based on their contribution to the academic gains of the students they support.  This has led to controversial headlines, none more so than the findings of Blatchford et al. (2011) who indicated that the more support a student receives the less academic progression they will make.

When we consider that 80% of high school teachers felt that they had no training to work with teaching assistants and 50% of these teacher believed that they required additional training to support the teaching assistant within the classroom, Neill (2002). We begin to see the emerging issue, confusion.  Teaching assistants themselves (59%) have highlighted that teachers do not have the required training to use them effectively within the learning experience, ATL survey of teaching assistants (2013).

What is clear, regardless of the pending changes outlined in the white paper, is that teachers have a responsibility to ensure that the teaching assistant(s) within the classroom are directed and actively contributing to learning, Ofsted: School Inspection Handbook (2013).

Quality of teaching grade descriptor – Good

Teachers and other adults create a positive climate for learning in their lessons and pupils are interested and engaged.

Quality of teaching grade descriptor – Outstanding

Teachers and other adults authoritatively impart knowledge to ensure students are engaged in  learning, and generate high levels of commitment to learning across the school.

On one hand, teachers saying that teaching assistants are in the classroom to support the pastoral and emotional development of the student(s).  Whereas teaching assistants are saying that they can and want to directly and actively contribute to the students learning.  Ofsted, are saying at teaching assistants have to ensure that students are engaged and learning.  However, there are barrier which are preventing this ideal fusion of the teaching assistant and teacher, such as:

Teachers felt that they need (Neill (2002)):

  • Training relating to the deployment of teaching assistants
  • Joint planning time
  • Training relating to recording and assessment

The biggest issue which teachers from primary and secondary school highlighted as a barrier is:

The teaching assistants lack of skills and subject knowledge

Research has shown that professional and specific training for teaching assistants has resulted in an increased performance of the teaching assistant and development of the supported student (Bourke (2009)Farrell et al. (2010)Rose & Forlin (2010)).  Making opportunities like joint planning absolutely critical as they allow the teacher to impart subject specific knowledge and teaching assistant to provide specialised differentiation knowledge specific for targeted student(s) within the class. 

Implications for all schools is that if you want to achieve an Ofsted rating of good or outstanding you need to establish a robust and specifically targeted training program for both the teacher and the teaching assistant.  Personally and based on experience, I would recommend that this specialised training is implemented separately from ‘whole school staff development.’

This blog could go on for another ten pages discussing issues and their implications within the classroom and the school but I will stop here. The next time you are working with another adult in the classroom (teacher or teaching assistant) take a step back and remember that we are all as confused as each other but we all want the best for our students.