The unsung heroes of education

Often underused and under-trained, teaching assistants are an untapped resource in schools.

Teaching assistants (TAs) have had a bad rap in the press recently. It’s commonplace to hear senior leaders and policy-makers questioning the value of them altogether. Figures such as “250,000 TAs at the cost of £4bn” distract from the simple fact that they are the lowest paid people in the education system with a salary that is, on average, half that of a teacher.

But many teachers, students and parents would argue that they one of the best things about our schools: with their individualised support, thousands of our children flourish.

I have worked in schools across the South West where TAs are barely utilised and given minimal guidance, support or training to be able to effectively engage with our most vulnerable children. I know of schools where the skills and confidence of their TAs remain untapped. As a result, TAs aren’t able to build key relationships with parents and outside agencies, and they are rarely asked about the very students they know best. In other words, schools often simply don’t know how to support and manage their TAs to allow them to contribute substantively.

Perhaps an obvious question that you could direct at a headteacher would be: why wouldn’t you invest in all of your staff, particularly your TAs? While some heads might attribute limited TA support and training to a lack of time and funds, I’d add in lack of accurate prioritisation. There exists a commonly held notion that unqualified and untrained staff are of minimal worth; money spent on their development would be extravagant and an inefficient use of limited resources. In the triage of urgent issues needing to be addressed by headteachers, this one hardly figures. But TAs can actually have the greatest impact in solving schools’ most time-consuming and money-haemorrhaging issues.

TAs can have the ability to establish systems that have massively impacted attendance of the most vulnerable, attainment of all inclusion groups and a significant reduction in fixed-term exclusions. I have seen TAs solve the problem of a child who will only work for an hour a day, of which I used my common ground of chess as a reward system with him. I have witnessed just how well they can support teachers in understanding their students, save them invaluable time in creating differentiated materials and even deliver provisions and small-group work to foster real, high-impact learning.

I believe that TAs should be valued so they are made to feel important and that their voice counts. TAs should be trained so they can realise their potential and give their maximum to the school. TAs should be supported with the right framework and management system so they can learn, develop and make a difference, just like their students. With TAs that are valued, trained and supported, we will do just these things for the most vulnerable children in our education system, and allow them to reach their full potential. What this will also do is potentially push the wages up, which will help TAs, particularly if they’re parents, to get a financial incentive as well as pride of the job.

I appreciate that this is a bit of a radical idea, but why not? I’ve been in a school where there were 3 TAs, the class teacher, myself and a colleague from university all in the same classroom. Granted one of those TAs was a 1-1 with a child with Cerebral Palsy, but still 6 adults in the same room! How nice would that be if we had that in every classroom, especially when you consider that there are still classrooms in the UK who don’t have even 1 TA in there! I believe very strongly that there should be a male and female adult in every classroom in the primary school. That way both boys and girls have a role model to aspire to. In this currently female dominated area of the educating sector, it is difficult in my experience to find a role model. Whilst the ratio is becoming more evening, steps still need to be taken to ensure that my idea comes to fruition. Hopefully I will be a part of the revolution!

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