Are schools rising to the challenge of CPD for the whole workforce; including teaching assistants? Elizabeth Holmes investigates what schools need to do to ensure that everyone receives professional development

CPD for the wider workforce, in particular for teaching assistants (TAs), remains a key dimension of the work of professional learning leaders in schools. Yet CPD for TAs does present certain challenges which need to be overcome if schools are to move towards realising their greater potential for the benefit of the pupils they serve.

According to the TDA, in the recent reviews of the national occupational standards for TAs and the professional standards for HLTAs the following areas were all highlighted as requiring strengthening. They are areas that TAs are increasingly being asked to get involved in, so additional training needs are inevitable:

  • assessment for learning
  • delivering sessions to individuals/small groups/whole classes including contributing to teachers’ planning and evaluation
  • supporting children with English as an additional language
  • pastoral/welfare support, including behaviour management
  • SEN (including support for children’s physical needs and the administration of medication).
Did you know… A recent survey of over 1,000 Unison members revealed the following:

  • The vast majority of schools offered classroom-based support staff school Inset and local authority Inset training within the last year.
  • Two-thirds of support staff rated their school’s training as ‘could do better/
  • much better’.
  • Criticism of school training centred on the quantity of training on offer, support staff being left out, the availability of relevant training, funding constraints, cover problems and lack of support.
  • One in seven respondents had had to undertake training in their own time.

Questions over cost and time
As usual, however, it’s not as easy as it might seem to cover all the necessary bases. Professional development for support staff is fraught with potential hurdles to overcome, not least, says Unison, the union which represents many TAs, the over-riding issue of access. Unison national officer for the Education Workforce Team, Bruni de la Motte, points out that the contracts that TAs have limit access to development. Currently two-thirds of TAs earn less than £15,000 per year. Unison argues that not only must any professional development take place in school time but also that it must be paid for by the employer and not by the TAs themselves. De la Motte explains, ‘Even though TAs may not be in school full time, they need the opportunity for a regular assessment of their development needs and access to information about what is out there and available for them. Each TA should have at least one targeted and effective training opportunity each year as an absolute minimum. TAs are an incredibly valuable asset for schools, especially those with a relatively old (and experienced!) age profile. Fifty per cent of TAs are over the age of 45 with a great hunger for learning. Schools have a duty to support that.’ The TDA recognises these challenges and suggests that CPD coordinators could respond to them, and to the key areas identified as requiring additional strengthening, by looking at the new standards for supporting teaching and learning (STL) and the professional standards for HLTAs, and using them as the basis for discussions with TAs about their role and whether their skills/and or knowledge need updating to enable them to meet each relevant standard. If there are gaps, CPD coordinators could either put in place in-house development opportunities (coaching and mentoring, work shadowing, Inset and so on) or identify appropriate external training courses. TAs might also wish to achieve accreditation through the new NVQs, which will be available from February 2008, or to pursue HLTA status. Naturally, this will depend on their future aspirations and current qualification level.

Mentoring and coaching
There is a huge amount which can be achieved in-house training. Philippa Cordingley, chief executive of CUREE, the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education, points to important evidence about the impact of learning and teaching conversations and exchanges. ‘According to research, it is these conversations which make the most difference to pupils,’ explains Cordingley. ‘So strategically, this is a great place for CPD leaders in schools to start. What we know is that what helps professional learning to make a difference to pupils’ learning is a combination of specialist support and collaborative or peer learning and in particular the reciprocal vulnerability that comes from professionals learning together. Both are taking a risk and learning something new.’

Such risk-taking helps those involved in collaborative or peer learning to become committed to each other’s development. This reciprocal vulnerability helps professionals to work together effectively in complex environments like schools, painting a picture of CPD where teachers can be thought of as specialist coaches. They can model what they want TAs to achieve. This combines all of the ingredients of the research cited by CUREE into a powerful model for development. It also puts support staff in a professional role as learners.

Cordingley continues, ‘For me, an important starting place for facilitating these professional conversations would be making sure that the teachers have got the coaching skills, not to transmit and guide but to coach them, model the learning and then have the TAs support each other in trying out new ways of doing things. That is really important. The coach is the most powerful CPD intervention there is, but even more powerful still is having the chance to coach other people. Learning to teach a learning support assistant is a great way of getting teachers to bring to the surface what they know about teaching and learning and that is of really powerful value to them too. This is a very clear message and a win-win solution to the issue of providing quality CPD for TAs internally, all in close relation to pupil learning.’

Best practice regarding CPD for support staff in schools has several key and distinct features, including: 

  • Consistent and established line management and appraisal systems for all support staff, as part of whole school performance management.
  • Planned-for CPD opportunities in line with school development plan priorities, provided for through the finance committee and linked to performance reviews for TAs.
  • Development of TA and HLTA roles to raise standards, support inclusion and provide wraparound childcare and personal development.
  • pay for the job being done.
  • Creative utilisation of support staff to enable teaching staff to focus on teaching and learning.
  • Working with all support staff inclusively as part of the whole school team and valuing them as such.
  • Mentor support for TAs taking accredited training.
  • Encouragement of all support staff to gain qualifications at an appropriate level.
  • Schools growing their own teachers from their TA team.
  • Measuring the impact of support staff on the achievement of pupils, in all areas of the curriculum.

Home grown
Finding creative solutions for professional learning for TAs is working in practice in many local authorities. Sue Lacey is a general advisor with responsibilities for support staff in West Sussex, which uses a wide range of strategies to help schools develop the professional expertise of all their support staff. ‘We have an extensive and well attended Inset programme which is run at our professional centres and in our groups of schools,’ says Lacey. Our HLTA programme is now very successful, with almost 300 HLTAs in the county. We encourage TAs who want to become HLTAs, to engage in training leading to assessment, in liaison with our local universities and adult and community learning. Our own programme, Reaching the HLTA Standards, is one of the most popular routes to HLTA status.’   Great practice in professional learning for TAs is happening in action in many areas, but the challenges to make it targeted and accessible remain in all schools. From the evidence, though, it seems that where TAs are valued as making a positive difference to the whole experience of school life for pupils, appropriate training and development solutions which support the specific context in which TAs work, are most easily found.

Case study: “We developed a career structure for TAs using the national standards”

Gill Perry is head of Newick House School, a special school for children with learning difficulties in Burgess Hill , West Sussex, that has a strong focus on the development of support staff. Here she explains how they overcome problems that may arise and how tracking CPD has helped move development on. ‘I have been head of Newick House School since 2000, but when I was in my previous school as deputy head we started trialling an appraisal system for TAs. When I came to Newick House we also used an appraisal system for TAs which meant creating an annual time for a teacher and a TA to have a chat together about how things are going. At first that raised quite a few issues as the teachers were not always fully aware that they were line managers of TAs so this needed some thinking through and looking back at national standards. Over time this became much more embedded and the teachers became more confident at helping TAs and involving them in the planning for classes. The result is that TAs are much more part of the team now. ‘Our appraisal system was an attempt to bring more equality into school because we wanted all the staff to feel equally valued. We then developed a career structure for TAs using the national standards to ‘grade’ TAs depending on what level they were at; we now have staff on each level. That approach changed the way that we do performance management. We use our HLTAs to mentor and do appraisals for TAs on other grades. In those meetings we review practice against the national standards to help them plan the training they need to undertake. We also use Blue Sky Education for online CPD planning. In part it is a self-assessment tool and this helps us to identify key areas for development. ‘TAs tend to need support in learning about the specialist input that some children need. That’s certainly the case here at Newick House. We have specific classes for children with autism and it is really important that they understand the approaches that we use for autism and the speech and language therapy approaches which underpin that. We also have a lot of health and safety issues because we have to do a lot of positive handling of children so there are many things that we need to build into the time available for professional development. We only have five inset days a year. By the time we have covered all we have to cover we have very little time left to do what would be ‘nice to do’. That’s a big issue for me.

‘Many TAs in other schools are attached to special needs departments so the same issues apply. Flexibility is the answer and we are now doing things we never used to do such as paying staff overtime to stay behind for development opportunities. We are creative with our timetabling and I’m also considering offering holiday training to help ease the pressure on term time. We will pay TAs extra to do that. The way we have managed to do all this is by employing an operations manager who spends her whole time in school organising timetabling and looking for creative solutions to these kinds of issues. If all of that had been down to the senior leadership team we wouldn’t have been able to give it enough time to make it work. Having someone take this on in an administration role has been great and releases me to do more strategic work.

Case study: Balancing competing demands

Kit Messenger is deputy head of Manor Field Primary School, also in Burgess Hill with responsibilities for the professional development of TAs. Here, she explains how they have balanced the potentially competing demands for CPD resources in schools to ensure that TAs get their fair share.

‘The most important thing for us was to first explore the context in which our TAs work to see how CPD could be successful. We looked at where they were at and what their greatest priorities were. There’s no doubt that a great deal depends on the size of the school. Small schools have very different challenges, but we are a large school with over 600 pupils and 30 TAs. To send all of them on a course would be really expensive and this dictates a lot about the way we work in training our TAs. We tend to group TAs for specific learning purposes and we can target their leaning in different ways. Some may require external training while for others we may buy in some external expertise perhaps on generic issues such as behaviour management, which all TAs can access. Behaviour management is always an issue for TAs one way or another. We tackled this as a team with an educational psychologist, someone from the inclusion support team and me delivering the training. We have also run training sessions on small group work which almost all TAs accessed. ‘Much of this is about striking the balance between giving TAs enough training so that they develop and work effectively with the children, and having them out of class so much that teachers complain! ‘We also used questionnaires to find out  what our TAs were confident about, what training would be the greatest use to them and what they would benefit from. This will feed into our regular reviews of the success of training. ‘Unfortunately money is always an issue. Teachers are vying for the CPD budget too and we have to balance those needs out. For successful CPD, particularly of TAs, schools need supportive headteachers. They need that leadership guidance. You cannot do quality CPD for anyone on the cheap, so headteachers need to prioritise it.

‘We know that there is more we could do. We would like to offer more opportunities for TAs to go out for training, and we’ve found that whole morning or afternoon training sessions are also effective. In addition, we are about to start a weekly TA meeting so they can raise issues and ask questions in connection with their work. We also want to involve them in the planning level at school. But, like everything else in connection with school life, it’s all about balance!’

Further information

  • The Skills for Schools award-winning website is a practical next-step journey planning tool run by Unison
  • The Curee website carries extensive information on how to construct learning relationships, in particular how you set up co-coaching relationships
  • In conjunction with East Sussex and Brighton and Hove, West Sussex has developed a pan-Sussex website which provides up to date information about all accredited training opportunities in the Sussex area
  • The West Sussex team has also created a series of CD Roms and a DVD for HLTAs that is available to purchase by other local authorities called Managing Whole Classes, Line and Performance Management for Support Staff and Gaining HLTA Status, which offer guidance, information and training materials, with other CDs about induction and supporting special and additional learning needs being created for 2008.