Lynn FulfordBy Lynn Fulford – Associate Dean of Faculty of Education, Law and Social Sciences at Birmingham City University

A recent report by the Conservative Reform Group makes some rather sweeping statements and generalisations about the role played by teaching assistants in our schools, claiming that they offer bad value for money and stating that they make a ‘negligible impact on pupil progress though some impact on teacher productivity’. The Daily Mail in its inimitable ability to pick up on populist causes talks about ‘axing the Mums Army’ in the interests of improving the quality of our children’s education, telling us somewhat smugly, ‘studies have found that those pupils who receive help from teaching assistants make less progress than classmates of similar ability’.

The Reform Group’s Research Director, Thomas Cawston, claims, ‘We found that while they were supposed to help teachers, they were actually being allowed to take classes themselves. Not being prepared or qualified to do those classes, they were not doing a very good job. The money spent on teaching assistants would be far better spent on improving the quality of teachers.’ What hasn’t been mentioned is that some of the research that led to the Reform Group’s suggestions comes largely from Ofsted information published in 2006 when the roles played by teaching assistants were much less well embedded in our schools, when training for assistants was more haphazard and when teachers were undertrained in how best to use this important resource in their classrooms. More detailed research conducted by the Institute of Education in 2009 found that children who were spending most of their time being taught by teaching assistants did less well than those taught by trained teachers.

We should of course not be surprised if teaching assistants do a less good job than teachers at leading learning in the classroom – quite simply it is not their job to undertake this particular role. The clue is in their name: they are assistants trained to support the teacher, not teachers themselves. It is indeed a cause for significant concern when teaching assistants are expected to take on the role of teachers – but to reach a conclusion that this means that we should get rid of teaching assistants is completely illogical. The issue is not about teaching assistants but how they are deployed in their schools. It is certainly the case that, in some instances, teaching assistants work almost exclusively with groups deemed to be ‘less able’, sometimes being required to withdraw these children from mainstream classroom activities. But poor practices such as these need to be addressed rather than used to determine policy and funding decisions.

We should not be seduced into believing that, by dismissing teaching assistants, funding would be redirected towards the employment of more teachers. Far from increasing teacher numbers, recent Government policy has been to abandon agreed minimum class sizes, increasing pupil numbers in many classrooms and therefore making the role of the teaching assistant even more important.

In the schools I visit I almost invariably see hardworking, dedicated teaching assistants (by the way, they are often men as well as women) offering a great deal to children’s learning and adding enormous value to the lives of their schools. Many of them are highly educated to degree level and have undertaken additional professional training to enable them to fulfil their role. Some of them choose to go on to train as teachers.

Learning and teaching have changed significantly over recent years with a greater emphasis on differentiation and individual support to help all children make good progress. Teaching assistants, as well as teachers, play a big part in this strategy so deserve their roles to be considered seriously rather than dismissed in the way that the Reform Group’s report, ably helped by the Daily Mail, has sought to do.

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Lynn Fulford

Lynn Fulford

Associate Dean - Student Experience & Quality Assurance