A job for the TA-team

On Monday morning we began our week with a round of applause. Granted, it was a mild one at that, but the intentions were well founded. It was simply our little way during morning briefing of celebrating National Teaching Assistant Day and thanking our team of teaching assistants. As a multicultural school – more than 40 different languages are spoken by the children – we rely on a large team of TAs, many of whom are bilingual to support the learning of our pupils. They do a fantastic job and without them we know that we would not have achieved 100% expected progress in both English and Maths in this year’s SATs.

So to celebrate National Teaching Assistant Day, here are 5 reasons why TAs are a good thing:

One | They close the attainment gap. When deployed effectively, a TA who is well trained with excellent subject knowledge can definitely close the attainment gap when working with a targeted group of pupils. Providing the work is pitched at the correct level and the TA is able to work with the intervention group over a period of time, real learning gains can be made. The cynics may point to the fact that it’s impossible to align the gains with the TA and it’s most likely a cumulative result of good teaching in the classroom. But I disagree. Of course, good teaching helps, but high quality small group intervention does make a difference be it with an EAL, SEN or more able group. The influential Sutton Trust report of 2011 ranks the impact of TAs almost bottom when compared with all other improvement strategies. But this is more likely a reflection of the lack of management and effective training and deployment of the TA than their ability to exercise influence.

As an Ofsted inspector I so often observe lessons where a TA just sits there for the first 20 minutes and then passively patrols the class looking busy. Of course standards are not going to improve. In our school, we now have an inverse attainment gap where the disadvantaged pupils outperform their peers. We know that when well deployed, TAs do make a difference.

Two | They are integral to the staff team. During the last ten years or so the number of TAs in schools has more than doubled. The National Agreement had a lot to do with this and lorry loads of TAs were shipped in to carry out the list of admin duties that teachers were banned from doing. As a result, we created a workforce expert at using pritt sticks, double mounting and climbing chairs. The focus was entirely on assisting the teacher rather than learning. Thankfully we have now moved away from this with the very best schools deploying TAs to support the learning of small groups of pupils.

The Teaching Assistant profession are not helped by the fact that we don’t actually have an agreed name for what to call them. When I was a headteacher in London they were called Teaching Assistants, but on joining my current school in the West Midlands they were known as (and still are) LSAs or Learning Support Assistants or LSPs, Learning Support Practitioners. The aforementioned Sutton Trust report refers to them as Educational Assistants, or even – and I’ve yet to come across this term – ‘Paraprofessionals’. We also have higher level TAs, mentors and coaches, in addition to TAs who work as family support advisers. Whatever we chose to call them, a well-trained practitioner who assists with teaching and learning in and around the classroom be it academically or pastorally will always make a difference.

Three | They make pupils feel safe and secure. In the news recently was a primary academy in Derbyshire that placed 2 qualified teachers in every classroom. As a result, every child in the class achieved a Level 4 in English and maths. In terms of rapid improvement  the results are stunning, given that four years ago just over a quarter of the pupils hit the benchmark. But I can’t help wondering whether or not similar results could have been achieved with a well deployed teaching assistant. After all, at VPA we’ve shown that every single child made at least 2 whole levels’ progress and this was partly as a result of the targeted interventions of our TAs. It was also because they made the children feel safe and secure in their learning.

Children are very aware of the difference in role between a teacher and a TA  even though we go to great lengths not to overemphasise the difference. (I defy you to come into a lesson and tell the difference between the teacher and the TA.) So when a child first arrives at school from a war-torn country, starving hungry and without a word of English, that first line of support from the TA is priceless. Whether you have one teacher or two, such is the demand on their time that with every will in the world, it is impossible to provide the pastoral, social and emotional support our most disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils crave. Simply hearing an adult who speaks their own language will immediately open more doors than the best-intentioned overworked teacher. Being able to reach out to a TA , often on the quiet, is important to a young child who demands immediate attention.

Four | They help enrich the learning experience. Our TAs love dressing up. I can’t vouch for what they get up to at home, but in school it’s a common sight to a see a TA go into character and become a fairy or a pizza delivery person or a clown. Central to our NICER curriculum is the concept of immersive learning. We rely on a continual stream of imaginative hooks to capture children’s imagination. Classrooms are turned into all manner of different places with strange characters appearing through mystery doors or time portals. Enter, stage left, the Teaching Assistant. Learning outside the classroom is a key ingredient of the immersive learning experience, be it our Forest School, peace garden, chicken coop or playground. The role of the TA is key in supporting the teacher in pimping up the environment.

Likewise, when we go on trips. Take our recent annual Grand Day Out in which all 450 pupils flocked en masse to Birmingham on a fleet of vintage Red Buses. Could we have achieved this without TAs? No. How about when we chartered our own steam train on the Severn Valley Railway or a flotilla of boats on the Avon canal? Not a chance. So if a school wants an immersive, purposeful and magical curriculum, then without TAs it simply won’t happen.  

Five | They bridge the gap with parents. Parents appreciate teaching assistants. I know only too well from my days as a teacher myself that when the umpteenth parent tells me something first thing in the morning about their child’s skin condition it would go in one ear and out the other. (Still does as a headteacher for that matter.) But when it’s told to a TA it sticks: What’s told to a TA stays with a TA. And if it stays with a TA, then action is taken, the teacher is kept informed at the next appropriate moment and everyone is happy. So as a stressed out teacher, having a TA on the playground is golden.

With so many of our parents not speaking English, our bilingual TAs especially, play a key role in bridging the gap. Culturally, many of our parents find it difficult to approach teachers as they have never been to school themselves. Whenever I need to speak to a parent about a matter then one of our TAs will translate for me. This helps in several ways as it softens the blow somewhat as their presence can diffuse the situation. Our weekly INSPiRE workshops with parents simply would not happen without TAs. This allows us to build trust between the home and school so parents feel confident at speaking to any member of staff. Our parents also know that our TAs attend all staff meetings and weekly professional development meetings. They know that they deliver a whole range of intervention packages as well as before and after school clubs. They know that they teach daily phonics sessions to their children. Most importantly parents know that our TAs wipe snotty noses, provide shoulders to cry on and make their child feel special.

And so, as a headteacher and parent myself, I sleep well at night knowing that the paraprofessionals are always on duty standing guard over our children. So let’s all be upstanding for another round of applause for the unsung heroes…Teaching Assistants.

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