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Teaching Assistants

Which of these statements is true?

  • Teaching assistants (TA) account for 27.8% of English schools’ workforce.

  • The number of full-time TAs has more than trebled since 2000: from 66,000 to 226,000.

  • There are more TAs in English nursery and primary schools than teachers: 273,000 vs 242,000. (1)

They are all true (the question was a little bit sneaky!) and each fact is an indication of the importance of teaching assistants to our schools.

Now, a second question: If you have a TA, are you deploying them as effectively as possible?

According to the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), ‘schools now spend more than £4 billion each year on TAs, corresponding to 10% of the overall schools budget’. (2) But there is a squeeze on these funds. A National Association of Head Teachers survey discovered that almost 80% of school leaders have had to reduce the number, or hours, of teaching assistants. (3) A University College London project showed that, ‘school leaders and teachers do not make the most of this value resource’. (4) This is, therefore, an area where improvements in practice should be sought; definitely sought when the findings of a University College London showed that, ‘school leaders and teachers do not make the most of this valuable resource’. Deploying teaching assistants effectively, after taking a look at the evidence, is important so that their role remains as indispensable as possible to schools.

The Guidance

The EEF have recently launched a brilliant weekly email series: Making the Best Use of Teaching AssistantsHere is the link. It’s worth subscribing to and each instalment is a quick read.

After that plug, back to this blog, which will discuss some of the evidence-based recommendations, around using TAs in the classroom, made in the EEF’s emails and their toolkit.

Supplementing the Teacher

TAs, according to the evidence-base, should supplement what teachers do. A key aspect of teacher supplementation involves effective communication between the teacher and the TA. When a TA is working with a group, it is important that the teacher’s intentions are made clear prior to the lesson. In an article on the impact of teaching assistants, the authors suggest many TAs feel underprepared for tasks and ‘have to go into lessons blind’ due to a lack of interaction with the class teacher. (5) A technique recommended by the EEF, that would require effective communication, is titled ‘Rotating Roles’: an approach that when implemented means that children spend an equal time with the teacher, TA and each other across the week. ‘Teaching Triage’ is a method where the TA roves the classroom and instantly reports issues that children are having to the teacher so that they can be addressed. Each of these approaches requires effective communication between practitioners; school leaders might want to dedicate CPD time to fostering effective classroom partnerships who work complementary to one another.

‘Separation’ Effect

The Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) Project (6) found that often TA support in schools was principally for pupils struggling to meet expected levels of progress or those with a Special Education Need or Disability (SEND). There are reasons teachers choose to deploy TAs in this manner but doing so, the DISS project suggests, causes a ‘separation’ effect. High amounts of TA support result in those children most in need, spending the least amount of time with the class teacher. Over-reliance on adult support can, over time, result in severely reduced ability to access work independently. This is where approaches such as ‘Rotating Roles’ or ‘Teaching Triage’, coupled with effective differentiation, may allow groups of children to access a mixture of adult support and independent learning opportunities.

Independent Learning

In addressing the issues raised by the DISS Project, the Effective Deployment of Teaching Assistant (EDTA) Project was launched. It reported that TAs can help children to master the skills that underpin learning. TA talk, such as the use of open-ended questions, can aid the development of learning skills. As they are working with children, TAs should allow pupils to self scaffold and intervene only when necessary. The key, as pointed out in the EEF’s Guidance Report, ‘is for TAs to give the least amount of help first’. (7) Figures one and two, taken from the report, are something that could be shared with TAs as part of a discussion of their talk and developing pupil’s independence.

TAs are a fantastic resource and the evidence-base indicates that if they are deployed effectively, they are able to facilitate pupil’s progress. So, ask yourself:

  • Which aspects of the guidance could I use so that I find out what works in my classroom?
  1. Department for Education (2017) Schools Census 2017. London, Department for Education
  2. Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Making Best use of Teaching Assistant London, Education Endowment Foundation.
  3. The Independent. 2018. Four out of five headteachers have been forced to cut back on teaching assistants due to lack of funds, says union. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 7 January 2019].
  4. IOE London Blog. 2012. The guide on the side: realising the value of teaching assistants. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 7 January 2019].
  5. Blatchford, P., Russell, A. and Webster, R. (2012) Reassessing the impact of teaching assistants: How research challenges practice and policy. Oxon: Routledge.
  6. Maximising TAs. 2009. The Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) Project. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 7 January 2019].
  7. Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Making Best use of Teaching Assistants. London, Education Endowment Foundation.