Angela Dewsbury, editor of Curriculum Management Update, looks at how curriculum managers can work with support staff to boost the learning of their pupils

When a new teaching and learning (T&L) initiative, or the latest directive from QCDA, or most recent change to the Ofsted requirements hits your desk, what’s your first thought (apart from, here we go again!)? Do you think, ‘How on earth am I going to accommodate this within our newly shaped, carefully designed curriculum?’; or ‘How much is this going to cost in staff time – not to mention morale?’; or ‘How am I going to squeeze this into an already crammed timetable?’ The list of responses could go on. But here’s a question for you: how long is it before you think about the role support staff can play in helping you deliver this latest curriculum change? Because curriculum managers who stay on top of things are clear about this: one way to swim, not sink, in the face of this continual onslaught of T&L initiatives is to make optimum use of support staff and ensure that change is introduced smoothly and effectively across the school.

There is no substitute for a coherent approach to innovation and development, but support staff can contribute significantly to the management and success of change.

So as we begin the new year, what better resolution to add to your school list than to commit to taking an honest and searching look at how well you are planning to make use of support staff to enhance T&L at a whole-school policy level?

Used well, teaching assistants (TAs) are an invaluable classroom support. But they’re not the only ones: there is a whole army of support lurking within your whole-school team. But if they stay on the fringes of T&L, you are doing your students – and teachers – a disservice. If you haven’t already made an audit, now would be a good time. Informally or via a more structured approach, check out the interests, experiences and skills of all your support staff, including librarians, receptionists, technicians, learning support unit (LSU) staff, mentors and so on.

How often have you run a T&L activity only to discover after the event that, unbeknownst to you, an expert in that field was sat within your very own staffroom? Whether it be the library assistant with three years’ experience as a Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) worker in Africa who could have helped bring first-hand knowledge and experience to your global dimension curriculum, or the receptionist with experience of running her own clothes business, which could have been invaluable to pupils exploring the significance of location to sustainable development within the geography curriculum – it is a shame to let such expertise go untapped.

Of course, drawing these staff out of the shadows doesn’t guarantee good practice. They need to have a sense of purpose and feel they’re a vital part of the team helping pupils learn. We all know how demoralising it can be to put your heart and soul into an activity, only for someone else to take the credit for it, or for the person in charge to completely ignore your input and not even offer a thank you for your time and effort. There are many simple-to-execute ways of helping support staff feel part of your whole-school team. Raising their profile can lead to their feeling valued and willing to go the extra mile. Suggestions are in the accompanying policy checklist.

Both support staff and teachers need to know what is expected of them. It only takes one incident where a technician is left out on a limb in a science class with no guidance on what he is supposed to be doing with the group of pupils, for him to withdraw to his lab and refuse to be put through ‘such a humiliating experience’ again. What a waste of invaluable expertise.

Or it might be a cover supervisor who is left unaware of the school behaviour policy and uses her own approach when a problem arises with a disruptive student. Not only does she not know who she can call on for assistance, but the action she takes reduces pupils’ respect for and confidence in the school’s ability to handle such issues with consistency, and leaves some thinking why they should bother to follow rules in future.

So why not take a closer look at your departmental processes to ensure they allow for effective use of support staff in all the main scenarios? Perhaps as curriculum manager you feel you have to have a policy for everything, a policy for creating policies even. But, used well, a policy for support staff’s contribution to T&L can bring real benefits.

We’ve only skimmed the surface here. The policy checklist below aims to help you take stock of your approach to these and other core issues. For more advice and guidance on how to make better use of your support staff to enhance teaching and learning, see the latest issue of Curriculum Briefing: Helping hands: using in-school support to boost learning. For more details or to order a copy, contact Optimus Education on 0845 4506406.

Policy checklist: developing the role of support staff to boost learningFor questions where you answer yes, consider what action you could take to improve even further. If you answer no to a question, consider what you need to do to achieve it.

Yes No Notes
Action plan
Have you recently audited your support staff provision?        
Are there improvements you could make to the ways in which support staff are deployed?        
Is effective use of support staff part of whole-school aims and policies?        
Are development opportunities provided for both support staff and teachers to help them work well together?        
Do mentors, LSU staff and all other pastoral systems have the same basic referral, target, monitoring and evaluation paperwork?        
Have you carried out a thorough audit of the interest, skills and experience of all your support staff?        
Have you systems in place to ensure all staff are aware of and make good use of the specific expertise held by your support staff team?        
Have you systems in place to ensure that all teaching staff know which T&L tasks can be delegated to support staff?        
Have you taken enough action to enable all teaching colleagues – both support staff and teachers – to see their role in an holistic vision of education?        
Are all support staff routinely given copies of school policy including:

  • Behaviour?
  • Health and safety?
  • Emergency procedures?
  • T&L policy?
  • Others?
Do you have up-to-date job descriptions in place for all support staff?        
Do these job descriptions clearly state:

  • Tasks?
  • Hours?
  • Expectations of the post?
  • Line manager?
  • Areas of responsibility?
What additional areas, if any, do you need to include on the job descriptions?        
Do all support staff know who to contact if they have a problem with disruptive pupils?        
Do you have a booklet, newsletter, display space and/or intranet information for support staff detailing key information and personnel?        
Have you set up a regular forum for support staff and teachers to discuss mutual issues?        
Do support staff have opportunities to join departmental meetings?        
Have you considered all available funding sources you could apply for to improve your support staff provision?        

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2010

About the author: Angela Dewsbury