Muriel Thomson tells how she has transformed the way teaching assistants and other support staff are used at Brixham College, Devon, bringing wide-reaching benefits across the school

I was appointed to the post of learning support coordinator in September 2000. Only two teaching assistants (TAs), who were called classroom assistants at that time, were in post and so I was able to build up the team gradually, as additional money became available. A part-time teacher (0.4) with expertise in literacy was also an invaluable support. One of our first tasks was to update our policy in the light of centrally initiated changes on policy and practices for inclusion. Our team, plus our link governor, our link member of the senior leadership team (SLT) and the manager of our learning resource centre, met fortnightly to give us time to articulate our vision, define our purpose, clarify our roles, agree our organisation and discuss our resources, including our staffing and training needs. This process seemed long-winded at the time but was vital in allowing us time to explore, clarify, shape, share and arrive at a consensus. This process also allowed us to build up a sense of belonging to a team. The issues that we agreed on and our working agreement are set out below. To meet the issues set out in this working agreement, we allotted each of our team — six TAs initially — to support a specific subject area. This meant that each teaching assistant became familiar with the subject content in that particular area, its assessment procedures and coursework demands. The TA could also develop working relationships with one subject team rather than with a wide variety of teachers.

We decided not to attach TAs to specific students because we did not want to develop a ‘support lifestyle’ among our young people.

Working agreement for learning support team

  • We would avoid any reference to ‘special’ as much as we could because:
  • there is nothing that will make classroom teachers feel they lack some essential and mysterious skills to teach effectively than labelling some of their students as ‘special’; good teaching is good teaching – planning, responding to where learners are, building relationships of mutual respect, engaging and empowering young people, assessing and giving feedback on how to improve — either all of it is special or none of it is
  • there has always been and always will be a continuum of need that will require a continuum of provision — what is to be gained in labelling 20% of our population as ‘special’ year after year?
  • ‘Special educational needs’ was becoming a value-laden label with negative connotations; people were now using the term as a noun and talking of youngsters not as ‘having’ special needs but as ‘being’ special needs. Usually, secondary-aged students do not want to be ‘special’ – they want to be the same as everyone else.
  • We should not look at pupils’ difficulties in terms of some deficit within the student and instead accept that a number of young people would experience barriers to learning in some contexts during their time at the school. Our job would be to minimise these barriers.
  • We should try to make effective provision for any student who wanted to attend our college.
  • All our pupils have entitlement to a broad, balanced and relevant education, so we would keep extraction to a minimum and focus resources on supporting access to the mainstream curriculum. Knowledge is power and we felt we had no right to deny students access to knowledge that is available to the vast majority of their peers.
  • The most appropriate learning theory to underpin our work was that of Lev Vygotsky’s social constructivism — see R. Murray Thomas (1993) Comparing theories of child development, Wadsworth Publishing Company, and A. Luria (1976) Cognitive development: its cultural and social foundations, Harvard University Press. Simply put, this means that students learn in social situations through interacting with someone who knows more or can do more than they can. This more knowledgeable person then scaffolds the learning of the pupil. The TAs would provide this scaffolding and would be the main ‘tool’ for differentiation in the classroom.

Training was central to the development of the team. We were fortunate that all the new appointees were keen to enhance their skills and the leadership felt this was essential — we could not have the most vulnerable and challenging students supported by the least well-trained adults. The local authority (LA) provided an excellent four-day induction course, covering the role and context of the job, inclusion, literacy and numeracy. Plymouth University provided 50% of the costs for its foundation degree for teaching assistants, provided that the teaching assistants completed the six end-of-module assignments. The rest of the funding came from the college’s central Inset budget. When we interview candidates for TA vacancies, we now make commitment to this training a part of our appointment process while giving guidance plus study time for the completion of the assignments, once the TAs are in post.

TA tasks
Delegation of tasks became a priority as the work of the team expanded, and given that I continued to carry a 60% class-teaching timetable. The TAs carried out all of the in-class support, working from a common understanding of their role to support the curriculum, to support all the learners and to support the teacher.

We accepted that certain behaviours were also a barrier to learning and that we had a responsibility to work with more challenging young people. So, we established a safe place where students could be allowed ‘chill-out’ time, staffed by a rotation of TAs. All of our students with a statement for emotional, behavioural and social difficulties (EBSD), plus some other pupils who were identified as possibly benefiting from this, had a time-out card or could be referred directly, and at any time, by a teacher. In addition, the TAs began to take on the tasks outlined in the box below.

Additional tasks taken on by TAs

  • Managing all aspects of mid-term admissions for all new students
  • literacy progress units
  • Running homework drop-ins at lunchtime
  • Supporting the administration of the cognitive ability tests (CATs) to the new intake within the first week of the new year
  • Administering marking, and scoring reading and spelling tests
  • Producing and updating summary sheets on one side of A4, filing centrally to give easily accessible information to help to monitor progress and set targets for learners with difficulties
  • Supporting the classes in maths and English with the pivotal students who had achieved Levels 3 or 4c, as well as those who were less able
  • Acting as readers/scribes for students with special arrangements for exams
  • Supporting KS4 students with aspects of coursework
  • In particularly challenging classes, working in an extraction setting with the more focused students whose progress may have been delayed by their peers
  • Doing staff field visits, residential and summer schools
  • Preparing the documentation for annual reviews

Ensuring acceptance
Good working relationships between teachers and TAs have been helped by offering good induction, limiting the number of teachers with whom TAs work and so allowing time and space for relationships to develop. This has helped to ensure that the TAs and the teachers are clear about the role of TAs. It has established which teachers want TA support and, by giving the TAs training, has helped ensure that support offered is of a good quality, although no working relationship is without its difficulties. The team spent most of its breaks and lunchtimes together and so many of the day-to-day queries could be answered quickly and advice given. The more intractable problems, such as a TA frequently being late for a lesson, were dealt with in a one-to-one conversation. We have yet to encounter difficulties that cannot be solved on an informal but assertive basis. Good communication has been the key to the success of the partnership between TA and teacher. We have never felt it necessary to make explicit to students the differences between the roles of teacher and teaching assistant. Perhaps because all students now come to us with experience of teaching assistant support in primary schools, the need to articulate the differences has never arisen.

Moving to next level
In October 2004, Ofsted carried out a full inspection of the college and the work of our team was described as ‘excellent’. By this time, a number of teaching assistants had completed Level 1 of the foundation degree and some of them had already gone on to other work (one of the downsides of investing heavily in training is that it does unlock doors to other careers that are better paid).

We wanted to review how we could best use the increasing skills and knowledge base of our TAs who were studying at Level 2 of the degree, as well as increasing their job satisfaction and remuneration, with a view to retaining them. Higher level teacher assistant (HLTA) status had been introduced, Every child matters had been published, and we had had our policies and practices validated by Ofsted. The local authority had undertaken a review of its SEN provision and the college was to become the enhanced resource for secondary students with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). This meant an expansion in staff and premises, as well as meeting the needs of a wider range of students. The college principal was reviewing the leadership and management structures at a senior level and funding was in place for major building improvements. The climate was right for moving to the next stage of our development. In conversation with the principal, I argued that the only thing that I did that a well-trained, able and experienced TA should not do at that time was teach whole classes. All my other SEN coordinator-type tasks could be delegated. The principal felt that strategic vision and planning should remain in the domain of a senior leader. The college now has four directorates, each led by a director. One of these directorates is student support and social inclusion. Learning support and autistic spectrum disorders provision are parts of this directorate and these are line-managed by the assistant director. The director monitors students who have EBSD, plans their interventions, writes their individual education plans (IEPs) and undertakes their annual reviews.

The enhanced ASD provision has a full-time teacher in charge and a team of four TAs. One of the HLTAs works within the ASD team, deputising for the teacher in charge. Her responsibilities are outlined in the box below.

Responsibilities of HLTA in autism spectrum disorders team The HLTA is responsible for:

  • day-to-day running of the provision when the teacher who is in charge is not available or needed elsewhere
  • planning and teaching lessons in French, literacy and social skills
  • delivering English, history and RE lessons, planned by the teacher
  • recording and communicating relevant information
  • working as a mentor to other TAs
  • liaising with parents and outside agencies when required.

New use of TAs The progress of all the students with ASD within the college, whether assigned to the enhanced provision or not, is the shared responsibility of the ASD team, including monitoring progress, writing IEPs and undertaking annual reviews for pupils who have statements. The enhanced provision is based in two classrooms with ‘chill-out’ areas attached, and with office accommodation. This allows for small group and extraction work, respite for when mainstream becomes too challenging, social space at breaks and lunchtimes, and a place where pupils who cannot be mainstreamed to receive their education. Students who have literacy difficulties have tuition with a teacher who has expertise in tackling literacy difficulties. This teacher also writes their IEPs and undertakes the annual reviews for students with a statement for specific learning difficulties. This teacher has trained a number of TAs in tackling specific literacy difficulties. Two higher level teaching assistants jointly lead the learning support team. They are paid at a higher scale and work additional hours to the basic.

One HLTA is linked to students with moderate learning difficulties, the other to students with sensory or physical impairment. On behalf of these students, they:

  • monitor and assess student progress
  • write, distribute (via the TA team so that they are brought to teachers’ notice), review and update IEPs
  • liaise with parents
  • liaise with external agencies
  • conduct annual reviews.

Other responsibilities are shared on the basis of what each of the HLTAs preferred to do, and include the tasks set out in the box below.

Responsibilities shared by HLTAs

  • Arranging and implementing all the special arrangements for exams
  • Producing TA timetables in consultation with curriculum team leaders
  • Conducting performance management reviews annually
  • Representing the team at staff meetings
  • Visiting primary schools and liaising with colleagues
  • Attending cluster and LA-wide special educational needs coordinator meetings and conferences
  • Administering the cognitive ability tests and Year 7 progress tests in English and maths
  • Leading and managing the summer-holiday transition camp
  • Maintaining the list of students who may experience barriers to learning, with essential additional information
  • Leading and managing the work of the TA team on a day-to-day basis
  • Running catch-up sessions for students at Key Stage 4 who are getting behind with their coursework

Further support
The college’s inclusion policy underpins all the work that the team does, and all the other college policies also apply to the team’s work. We have been very fortunate to work in a college where the senior leadership team is fully committed to an inclusive ethos and so the values underpinning the work of the whole college have been an almost exact match to those that are underpinning the work of the team. There are two initiatives worth sharing that have supported learning at the college and have been dependent on the expertise of our TAs. The first of these initiatives began in the summer term of 2005, when we identified six boys who were disaffected, seriously underachieving, unlikely to leave with at least five passes at GCSE and who often prevented teachers from teaching as effectively as they could in the core subjects. We created a package for them, which involved a mix of work placement, continuing to follow some of their option subjects, following a GCSE photography course, and being taught GCSE English and maths in two groups of three by the HLTAs. This maintained their education, kept them as part of our college community, gave them a package that was tailored to their needs, and also gave them the individual attention that they needed to help them progress. In addition to this support, they were also given easy access to Connexions interventions. While this intervention was sometimes challenging to deliver, all six students maintained their attendance and left with at least five GCSE passes. All are in further education, work or training, including a boy in public care who also had an EBSD statement. Without the TAs, this would not have been possible. The second initiative was brought about because the lift used by students with physical disabilities was out of use for two terms during the building improvements work. In order for our students who use wheelchairs to access some specialist subjects, our information communications technology (ICT) team purchased and installed cameras in history, geography and science rooms. The cameras were equipped with sound and could zoom in and out. They were controlled by the student who could not physically access the lesson, who would work with a TA on the ground floor. The cameras were of sufficient quality so that even teacher notes on a whiteboard could be easily read. Often, rather than the student working in isolation, they would be joined by a group of their peers. However, a much wider application for the cameras was quickly identified. This technology is now being used with our ASD students who find attending mainstream lessons difficult, with students who have attendance difficulties, to ease them back into learning, and with students who present challenging behaviours in certain contexts. Again, without TA support this support would not have been possible. The development of a learning support team that is comprised primarily of TAs has been remarkably smooth. Teachers have been receptive to the additional support for students, the curriculum and for their teaching. Students are also very positive about in-class support. Teachers frequently ask if it is possible to receive extra support and the range of responsibilities TAs have taken on has grown, as has their expertise.

Quality of postholders
The key to the team’s success has been in the careful appointment of people who are committed to making a difference to the lives of young people, who accept that these young people have the right to be educated in their local school and who are committed to undertaking training to be sufficiently skilled to make their intervention effective.

Once these people have been recruited, training them and spending time with them to ensure they remain positive and inclusive in their attitude, with all work based on a common value system means the rest falls into place.

Practical inclusion
Our teaching assistant team makes inclusion a practical possibility. Their work, with its focus on removing barriers to learning for a wide range of students, has also contributed to raising standards within the college.

The emphasis on training linked to a higher qualification has brought a number of adults back into education. Most of these students have thrived, achieved and come to perceive themselves as successful learners.

Muriel Thomson, Director, Continuing Professional Development and Self-evaluation, Brixham College, Devon