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Rob Webster: How COVID revealed the essentialness of teaching assistants, and how they can help pupils survive and thrive

You might not know it, but over a quarter of people working in UK schools are employed as teaching assistants (TAs). In fact, in England alone, on the basis of headcount, TAs comprise a population almost equivalent in the size to the city of Manchester.

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A system run on TA power

Whatever you might think about the equity and efficacy of systems of inclusion in UK schools, the truth is that it runs on TA power.

Once the scale and seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic became clear, it was a fair bet that TAs were going to be crucial to how schools navigated what would turn out to be intermittent and partial closures, and how they ensured that the needs of – in the parlance of legislation passed at lightning speed – ‘vulnerable’ children and young people were not lost amid the extensive and unprecedented turbulence.

By the time of the winter 2021 lockdown, findings from a series of rapid research studies revealed a troubling picture of the extent and the impact of Covid: ‘lost’ learning; declining well-being; vital social services going AWOL; and overloaded teachers juggling any number of hand-grenades from centre assessed grades to teaching via Zoom. Like a missing puzzle piece, however, we knew almost nothing of how TAs were experiencing the pandemic, and what contribution they were making to keeping education as close to normal as possible.

TA work during COVID-19 restrictions

To address that gap, colleagues and I at UCL conducted a large-scale, national survey of TAs working in UK schools (Moss et al. 2021). The research, funded by Unison, told a compelling story about how pivotal TAs had been in allowing schools to keep functioning and supporting learning during the pandemic.

In many ways, the findings revealed TAs to be the unsung heroes of the pandemic: leading classes/bubbles; covering staff absence; reminding pupils to socially distance; contacting families; delivering food parcels and learning packs; even running one-to-one and small group ‘catch-up’ sessions, as schools struggled to access the National Tutoring Programme. Of all the sections of the school workforce, no-one put themselves at more risk of infection than TAs.

Long before Covid, TAs have been like the mortar in the brickwork of schools. Their work hidden, underappreciated, essential. During Covid, it was hard to see how schools could have managed without them.

TAs were keen to tell us that people had not only “underestimated the difficulties the pandemic created for schools”, but how they themselves felt “forgotten about”. Referring to the ‘clap for carers’ ritual, which occurred each Thursday at 8pm during the spring and summer 2020, one TA remarked: “Lots of people are thanking teachers and overlooking the support staff. We attend school every day too!”

Maximising TA impact

As debates have understandably centre on ‘getting back to normal’, we should use this moment to consign the taken-for-granted, hidden work of TAs to the dustbin of education history. We may not have been out on the streets, applauding and clanging saucepans in their honour over lockdown, but we can do something more meaningful and longer-lasting.

Since 2014, our Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) initiative has been supporting schools to unleash the potential of their TAs. MITA was a direct response to a programme of research (started in 2004) that has looked variously at the role and impact of TAs in schools, and the everyday educational experiences of pupils with SEND. This extensive and ground-breaking research initially revealed how the support TAs provided had little or no effect on pupil attainment, and may even have been detrimental to the development of independence.

The reason for this, though, has little to do with TAs. Instead, our early work found that schools tended to use TAs in ways that inhibited their potential, rather than releasing it. The specifics of their role were unclear to both TAs and teachers; their deployment inconsistent; their training very limited; and opportunities to liaise and plan with teachers virtually non-existent. In short, it was the decisions made about TAs, not by TAs, that best explained the lack of impact.

The essentialness of TAs for schools

Were the consequences not so serious, we might joke that having your working day characterised by ambiguity and improvisation is probably good preparation for managing life in a pandemic. Similar to (but very much pre-dating) our Covid-times study, this research hung a lantern on the essentialness of TAs to the day-to-day running of schools, but at the same time revealed the unintended consequences of a model of inclusion and pupil support that relies heavily on their employment.

What MITA has helped hundreds of schools to do is to review, redeploy and re-energise their TA workforce to not only avoid these unintentional outcomes, but to actually harness and make a feature of TAs’ unique place within the school structure. MITA’s particular take on the role of the TA is to reshape it via training on how to support pupil independence and engagement. To nurture skills associated with attentiveness, concentration, application, and an enjoyment in learning new things and doing things for oneself. Attributes we might think of as vital post-pandemic competencies.

And there is good evidence from a soon-to-be published trial that this approach works.

TAs are an indispensable part of the school workforce. As the recovery effort gains momentum, we have, in the shape of MITA, a practical and impactful way of crafting an important and much-needed role for TAs. A role that not only recognises their value, but capitalises on their distinctive position within our schools and classrooms, and can help pupils to develop the essential skills needed to thrive in an increasing uncertain world.

Part of our special series to support Refugee Education UK – donate now

Find out more about the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) initiative

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