Do teaching assistants help students learn?

Schools must provide training and resources to ensure teaching assistants make a positive impact on learning
Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash
Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

Teaching assistants are key members of staff in school, supporting classroom teachers and students in primary and secondary schools. But if they are not appropriately trained by the school, they support minimal academic progress, and can even have a negative impact on learning.

In the school year 2019-2020, teaching assistants (TAs) made up more than a quarter of the school workforce in English schools. But despite TAs being employed to provide support in the classroom, they are not always given the training and resources needed to carry out their jobs effectively. It’s estimated they could be providing just one month of additional academic progress, although there has not been much research.

This meagre estimation is partly because TAs provide different types of support in different schools – with some practices being more effective than others. TA practices typically fall into one of three categories. There are whole-class TAs who work with teachers to provide support to all students in the class. Others provide targeted support within the classroom, mainly to students who require additional support. Finally, there are TAs who deliver out-of-class interventions to students who require additional support.

“It’s estimated teaching assistants could be providing just one month of additional academic progress.”

The most common practice in primary schools, based on research with 60 schools published in 2019, is to employ whole-class TAs. Secondary schools most commonly have targeted TAs who support specific students in class, and this method is the second most common for primary schools. When we drill down into what TAs are actually doing with students, they are typically informally instructing those who are most in need, and focusing on the completion of tasks.

While it seems logical that TAs should focus on those most in need of help, the consequence is that those students spend less time interacting with their teacher. TAs typically (and reasonably) want to help students complete the tasks they have been given, but this comes at the expense of the students’ understanding. It can also reduce students’ independence. Underlying all of this is a lack of training and preparation by many schools.

What could schools do differently?

Schools should prepare TAs – training should be provided, and TAs should have time to speak with the class teacher about their role. TAs should not take away from a student’s time with the teacher, they should be supplemental. There should be reduced focus on finishing pieces of work, and greater focus on developing understanding of concepts and independent working. TAs should not deliver informal teaching, which can actually have negative impacts on learning, and instead should deliver well-evidenced interventions.

It’s important to repeat what has been pointed out in guidance by the Education Endowment Foundation: If having TAs in the classroom isn’t improving learning, TAs are not to blame. It is up to school leaders to ensure that TAs are well trained and well equipped to deliver evidence-based interventions. Unfortunately, many schools are operating within funding constraints which impacts access to resources and training, and even the number of TAs available in a school.

“Teaching assistants should not deliver informal teaching, which can actually have negative impacts on learning.”

Thanks to the growing evidence and guidance, many schools that do have the resources are starting to implement these changes. Now that schools have reopened following closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, staff should think more carefully than ever about how students who have been most left behind are supported in the classroom. This area is a really good example of how evidence can highlight ineffective school practices and suggest practical solutions. Thanks to this evidence, TAs, who make up such a large proportion of school staff and help to relieve teacher stress, can be supported to help their students become independent and effective learners.

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