To allow full use of teaching assistants, curriculum managers need to ensure both TAs and teachers have the support they need. This involves quality line management and a clear understanding of how to plan for effective learning, Lynn Maidment explains

In today’s world, change is so rapid that schools need to be willing to regularly embrace new initiatives, discoveries and technologies, adapting themselves to the needs of pupils who come from an ever-changing and evolving multicultural and often fragmented society. What might have been appropriate in school classrooms 10 years ago is unlikely to be so today. To prosper in this climate requires schools to make optimum and innovative use of all staff. One sector of your workforce that has moved more centre-stage in recent years is teaching assistants. This month’s Case in Point looks at how to make best use of this key component of your teaching team to improve whole-school teaching and learning. To achieve this, often requires you to challenge teachers to move out of their comfort zones, and change their thinking and teaching — making this one of the most demanding staffing challenges facing curriculum managers. This article looks at ways of rising to this challenge.

Remodelling of teachers’ workload and the school workforce, brought in by the National Agreement signed on 15 January 2003 between employers, unions and the Government, marked a long overdue change for education. The time was ripe for educationalists to ask two linked questions, ‘What sort of education do we need to promote?’ and ‘What sort of schools are we aiming to become?’

Released from the bureaucratic burden that previously detracted from learning and with the transfer of a range of administrative and clerical tasks from teachers to new associate staff teams, the time was right to revisit pedagogy, philosophy and practice. In that revisiting, numerous schools have successfully taken advantage of their extended workforce to help them improve whole-school teaching and learning.

Since 2003, the Government’s target for schools to work with the extended workforce to raise achievement and safeguard child welfare has been extensively articulated through a variety of documentation, avenues and forums. Running alongside this is extensive support for training and development and a new qualifications framework for associate staff.

To date, what we have is a dynamic and continually evolving school workforce underpinned by a new professional framework for higher level teaching assistants. Every school now has the opportunity to develop its associate staff according to its unique needs and priorities. We have a range of additional associate staff with roles and responsibilities as varied as the schools from which they come.

Helping hand

Recognising the needs of education in the 21st century, successful schools have used the workforce flexibility to promote and support the diverse learning needs of their pupils. They have done this in a variety of influential ways. For many, teaching assistants have been central to these new developments in learning. Accepting that all students learn differently at different times means that the evolving role of teaching assistants has moved rapidly to a place where, in successful schools, teaching assistants are seen as a vital element of planning for learning. With the help of the growing band of teaching assistants, teachers are beginning to address some of the issues linked to personalised learning. The Every Child Matters agenda with its focus on the five outcomes and resulting developments deliver a clear message that we should be looking at the achievements and needs of individual learners within the school community not the achievements of the school itself. There has been a ‘step change’ in curriculum thinking and planning. Add to these changes the clear message that the continuing professional development (CPD) of the workforce is at the heart of school improvement and forward-thinking management teams have not hesitated to see the potential of teaching assistants and their associate colleagues in the raising achievement debate.

In The shape of things to come: personalised learning through collaboration (DFES/NCSL, 2005) Charles Leadbetter comments that:

Learning depends on creative interaction. It cannot be reduced to a series of transactions in which knowledge and skills are delivered to children like parcels from Fed Ex… All too often children who learn differently come to be seen as difficult because they cannot fit into the system.

Leadbetter continues by exploring the potential of personalised learning to raise attainment. Making effective use of teaching assistants by fully involving them in the development of lesson plans and identifying learning objectives can bring the world of personalised learning that much closer. To secure changes that can lead to improvements in whole-school learning and teaching, classroom teachers now view their teaching assistants as partners in learning and are ensuring their involvement with planning, clarifying mid- and long-term learning objectives and evaluating outcomes. This requires an investment of time on behalf of the teacher and the assistant, but the benefits that are being enjoyed far outweigh the initial time investment.

Training and development

Schools looking for support in the ongoing development of their TAs can look at the National Occupational Standards for teaching and classroom assistants approved in 2001 and to the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) framework that has accredited associate staff since 2002.

The value of these national frameworks is considerable. For management teams they provide invaluable tools and frameworks for promoting the areas listed in the box below.

Opportunities provided by national framework Chance to:

  • job descriptions
  • measure performance
  • have professional development dialogue.

Provide:

  • a starting point and guidance for school managers and teachers about effective deployment of TAs
  • guidance for teachers in helping to develop the classroom team
  • training and other professional development
  • recognition of what teaching assistants undertake every day
  • a structure to a qualifications framework
  • standardised employment requirements
  • progress and development.

However, as with all things that impact across the whole-school community, the introduction and integration of the reformed workforce should not to be left to chance. It should be strategically planned and implemented to agreed timescales. A strategic approach will help avoid ‘deep-end’ induction in which teaching assistants and other associate staff are expected to sink or swim. There is an enormous cultural shift going on in schools and those who are slow to acknowledge it will also fail to harness its potential. The 21st century teaching assistant is no longer ‘the whispering radiator’ (sitting by a student in need of support and explaining to them what the teacher is saying) but is now the catalyst for supporting a range of new teacher-led activities that may previously have gone unexplored. Innovation in teaching is about building on distinctive strengths and ethos – successful schools are putting the reformed workforce at the heart of that ethos while fully exploring the strengths of these new teams.

Strategic planning
Strategic planning involves, among other things, those items listed in the box below.

Elements involved in strategic planning

  • Defining the school’s core purpose, and deciding how the school needs to meet future demands
  • Considering the effect the school needs to have on its pupils, parents and the wider community
  • Setting the long-term view in the context of external change
  • Making the most of opportunities identified by external change
  • Identifying a whole-school coherent response to change
  • Deciding how developments will be resourced

Once this process is established in schools it is a fairly seamless process to put the accompanying scaffolding for associate staff in place. To be effective, respected and informed within the school community, TAs and other associate colleagues will need the type of induction programme, handbook and information set out in the box below.

Effective support of TAs – key ingredients

  • Regular inhouse meetings that are timetabled, put on agendas and minuted for management and reference purposes
  • A glossary of educational terms (SATs, SENCO, AfL and so on)
  • Information related to inhouse communication networks
  • Summary information related to the school’s improvement plan
  • Sharing of information and of best practice within a variety of school teams
  • Details of school day and times
  • Name badges (this helps students to see them as permanent staff members)
  • Rewards and sanctions information completed with exemplar materials
  • The opportunity to be developed as mentors for other teaching assistants and associate staff new to post
  • ICT training and development to enable them to access intranet information and participate in research and e-learning opportunities
  • Information about appropriate career development opportunities, for example HLTA status and NVQs
  • Clear and appropriate line management guidance and regular meetings to discuss professional development and school improvement issues — performance management policies that already exist in schools can be extended to involved the new personnel and teams
  • Well-considered and clearly identified job responsibilities with a clear, concise job description that is regularly reviewed in line with national imperatives and school-wide developments
  • Opportunities to input to the mid- and long-term planning for lessons and to engage in evaluation and analysis with teaching colleagues
  • A positive climate in which teaching assistants are viewed as colleagues whose expertise and skills adds a further dimension to teaching and learning
  • Provision of regular inhouse and external development opportunities
  • Opportunities to play to their curriculum strengths and personal confidence via their classroom deployment
  • An induction programme and handbook that focuses on a range of issues designed to give them a clear vision of learning in their school
  • Continuity of relationships to ensure clarity of purpose and learning outcomes
  • Being introduced to pupils and parents as associate staff who have a valued place in the classroom in support of individuals and groups of learners
  • Given the wider picture of school improvement by involvement through their team in school/department improvement planning
  • Involved, wherever possible, in whole-staff training and staff meetings
  • An understanding of a range of inhouse issues including: school’s rewards and sanctions policies and access to documentation and inhouse expertise on behaviour for learning, Every Child Matters, health and safety issues, child protection matters, learning styles, gender specific strategies SEN and so on.

When senior management teams are considering the deployment of teaching assistants they have an extensive range of options. To bring some clarity to these options it can be a valuable exercise to reflect on the principles of whole-school improvement and then consider how associate staff might have a positive impact on those – see this box.

Principles of school improvement

  • Focus systematically on teaching and learning
  • Base all improvement activity on evidence about relative performance
  • Build collective ownership and develop leadership
  • Collaborate with other organisations
  • Create time to learn together
  • Embed improvements in the school’s systems and practice

(Leading and coordinating CPD in secondary schools, DfES,2005)

Opportunities for learning
Teaching assistants in 2008 are informed and articulate and in many cases career focused, expecting to see their role as influential and respected in the school community. Secondary practitioners looking for pointers related to best practice in the development and deployment of teaching assistants would do well to consider some of the best practice exemplified by primary colleagues. In its 2002 report on the evaluation of the work of teaching assistants in primary schools, Ofsted focused on their impact on the effectiveness of the national literacy and numeracy strategies – see the box below for key findings.

Lessons on TA use from primary schools

  • Teachers value highly the support provided by teaching assistants in lesson and the benefits of having another skilled adult in the classroom
  • Schools seldom evaluate properly how much pupils’ learning and attainment are improved by working with teaching assistants
  • Career progression for teaching assistants is now developing, linked to a new national qualifications structure — more schools now include teaching assistants in performance management procedures
  • Teaching assistants contribute to the wider life of a school by giving generously of their time and talents — they often have an informal but influential pastoral role, and provide continuity between classes for both pupils and teachers

(Extracts from: Teaching assistants in primary schools – an evaluation, Ofsted, 2002)

Under headings on ‘good practice’ and the ‘quality of teaching’, the report identifies a range of issues that focus on teaching assistants potential to support learner achievement – see the box below.

Improving teaching The quality of teaching is improved when the teaching assistant:

  • works in close partnership with a teacher who plans for the teaching assistant’s role in the lesson and has good arrangements for gaining feedback on pupils’ learning and behaviour
  • interacts with the teacher to make the lesson more lively or to generate more challenging discussion
  • knows enough about the subject to extend pupils’ learning
  • deals with minor behaviour issues and encourages pupils’ attention, enabling the teacher to concentrate on teaching the whole class
  • has good questioning skills
  • enables the teacher to organise the work of groups and individuals so as to match work more precisely to pupils of different abilities.

(Extracts from: Teaching assistants in primary schools – an evaluation, Ofsted, 2002)

Management teams seeking to evaluate the impact of teaching assistants might do well to use these points as a starting point for a whole-school or department evaluation tool, a tool that could point the way to further enhancements in the role of teaching assistants across the school.

Fulfilling potential

Effective learning takes place when learners understand what they are trying to achieve and have a clear focus for that achievement. Improving learning and teaching is the central aim of our schools. Schools need to consider their inhouse provision and development for associate staff so that it reflects their needs as well as the wider view of learning – only then can they be assured that they are releasing the potential of the workforce reforms. There can be few things more professionally uplifting and fulfilling than belonging to a high-performing team. To underpin the development of such a team in the school context, senior managers need to give sufficient thought to the induction of new associate staff. All those that begin a new job will benefit from clarity related to their new role and to the complexities of their organisation. With each school developing its own culture within the broader national agenda, it is very important that associate staff be inducted accordingly. Some of the best induction programmes for support staff are those that undertake a brief period of pre-employment training, building on this with good quality inhouse induction training linked to the schools improvement plan and national imperatives such as assessment for learning and Every Child Matters. Using inhouse and external expertise, these programmes can be put together inexpensively. The benefits will quickly be realised as staff know from the outset what the expectations are and are not afraid of overstepping the line between associate staff and teaching teams. Some schools ensure that before teaching assistants and cover supervisors take up post they have the opportunity to see several high-quality lessons, discussing with the teacher post observation a range of issues related to classroom organisation and individual pupil needs. They also reflect in detail on the deployment of associate classroom-based staff, taking account of prior experience and learning to ensure effective, fulfilling placements. When the induction process is well managed, staff can enter the school from a position of strength and many of the problems experienced through ‘deep-end’ induction – where they are merely thrown in and expected to swim – can be avoided. By avoiding unnecessary stress and confusion, it is possible to move quickly to get associate staff and most particularly teaching assistants involved in the planning for and assessment of learning.

Designing opportunities for learning
If the appointment made is an appropriate one and the teaching assistant feels themselves to be a valid member of the learning team, planning in association with a TA should be a valuable and thought-provoking experience. It should give the teacher an opportunity to reflect on their practice in a safe and professional context and leads to more effective learning and teaching. It should not be cumbersome and bolt on but should be central to the ongoing dialogue and supportive relationship the teaching team is forging.

Discussions and planning should aim to achieve the actions set out in the box below. Such discussion should be a regular part of the planning process for teacher and TA.

Planning learning together — key areas to focus on

  • Build on the curriculum and the department team’s aspirations for
  • the future
  • Emphasise the desired learning outcomes, reflecting on the variety of activities and styles that will be used to secure the learning outcome
  • Consider the roles of teacher and learning assistant during the lesson
  • Determine the teaching styles that will be used to match the needs of individual learners or groups of learners
  • Explore any barriers to learning that might manifest during the lesson and identify strategies for overcoming these

A culture of high expectation coupled with regular collaborative analysis and planning will lead to improved pupil achievement and to the teacher modelling for pupils the value of collaboration and the value of different view points in the process of learning.

Restricted access, restricted impact
The wideranging and everchanging roles that associate staff are embracing can sometimes cause confusion and frustration to teaching colleagues as they struggle to come to terms with changes in their own roles. So it may be some time before the role of behaviour specialist, inhouse researcher or key stage liaison officer is seen to be something that is enhancing the teacher role rather than a move designed to undermine the vital importance of the teacher. Line managers for teaching assistants need to be aware of some of these issues as they are managing one of the most demanding inhouse developments of the last decade. To explore the true potential that teaching assistants have to support us in raising achievement in learning and teaching, some teachers may have to challenge their own particular comfort zones, adjusting thinking and teaching accordingly.

The message emerging from those schools who are exploring their workforce developments and exchanging and distilling ideas is that effective practice in relation to teaching assistants is first and foremost about fostering participation in the mid- and long-term planning of lesson and learning resources, involving them wholeheartedly in the academic and social processes of the school. When teaching assistants are empowered through dialogue and appropriate information dissemination they can engage with the learning dialogue and using their insight of individuals and groups of learners across the school bring something substantial, relevant and thoughtprovoking to the table. They have the potential, when effectively managed, to improve whole-school teaching and learning.

The synergy that is beginning to develop between the teacher and the teaching assistant has been highlighted in the new professional standards for teachers that the TDA has published. This framework seeks to strengthen the focus on collaboration in the classroom, setting out clear expectations for colleagues at all levels of the profession. The description of each of the five recommended professional standards is divided into three sections: a teacher’s professional attributes, knowledge and understanding, and professional skills.

Under the professional attributes in the standards there is a fourfold set identifying expectations at different stages in a teacher’s professional development and growth. One of these relates to communicating and working with others.

Q5 identifies that teachers should:

Recognise and respect the contribution that colleagues, parents and carers can make to the development and wellbeing of children and young people, and to raising their levels of attainment.
(Professional standards for teachers – qualified teacher status – professional attributes – communicating and working with others.)

Traditionally, we know that the expectation is for teaching assistants to provide support in:

  • helping with providing classroom resources and keeping records
  • helping with the core curriculum and support of pupils in these areas
  • providing support for learning activities
  • providing support for colleagues.

Taking support activities beyond the traditional and mechanistic by collaborating with the other expert in the classroom can help teachers to evaluate afresh some of their established routines and practices, while helping to safeguard pupil welfare.

Line management

The exciting potential of teaching assistants can best be realised when implementation of the wideranging changes that they and their colleagues will bring to schools is clearly articulated, understood and identified in the school’s development strategies and improvement planning. In addition to being central to schools’ development planning, teaching assistants need high-quality line management from a member of staff who is committed to recognising their contribution to the learning agenda and to ensuring that others recognise it too. Senior management teams would be well advised to carefully consider the demands of the role and the skills necessary to successfully respond to these demands.

The person tasked with line-managing teaching assistants will need a range of abilities, strengths and skills. These will include evidence of quality:

  • strategic management experience, including an understanding of the change process
  • interpersonal skills
  • understanding of the school improvement process and objectives
  • staff deployment experience
  • staff management, including performance management and staff induction processes.

What should not happen is that the person who eventually leads one of the most influential developments in the school should be chosen because they happened to have nothing else to do or they had some timetabled flexibility. The raising standards agenda is about schools developing learning teams with a range of personnel not previously experienced in the life and day-to-day routines of schools. Line managers need to be experienced and articulate enough to undertake when necessary whole-staff development and training. They also need to be sufficiently well respected within the school community to act as advocates for their teams in some of the challenging and exacting times ahead. Effective, informed line management will enable the endeavours of teaching assistants to be well orchestrated and appropriately channelled to help raise achievement.

As a starting point for line managers new to working with teaching assistants, the DCSF’s teachernet website has some interesting and valuable pointers related to collaboration in the classroom. In Supporting the teaching assistant – a good practice guide there is a section ‘working collaboratively with teachers’ that identifies the following issues for consideration when looking at how teachers use their teaching assistants. It promotes team thinking by asking a series of relevant questions that can lead to further, valuable development work:

Indicator 3.1: TAs work cooperatively with teachers to support the learning and participation of pupils

  • Do TAs understand the purpose of lesson activities?
  • Do TAs share in long- and medium-term planning?
  • Are TAs involved in the planning of specific lessons where teachers and TAs share the classroom?
  • Do TAs and teachers have arrangements that encourage them to offer one another constructive feedback?
  • Do TAs and teachers plan in ways that demonstrate to pupils their commitment to teamwork?
  • Are there agreed plans for TAs to respond to individual pupils’ needs?

 (Teaching assistant file – induction training for teaching assistants in secondary schools, DfES, 2002)

It is a good idea to take this review a step further by asking how you know these things do or do not happen.

Shared responsibility, shared outcomes

Many schools have long had established curricula with teams that can become inward-looking. Teaching assistants and their workforce colleagues can help make some fundamental and much needed changes in this direction. Incorporated in the workforce reforms is time for guaranteed planning, preparation and assessment (PPA). This is designed to. among other things, give teachers opportunity for reflection, professional development and time to extend their subject and pedagogical knowledge.

Using teaching assistants to help review and have an input to discussions on new flexible learning approaches, the impact of new technologies and self-directed learning would be perfectly feasible ways of ensuring their involvement in the longer term planning for learning. To involve them in observing the impact of changes to teaching approaches and discussing their findings with teaching colleagues would also go some way towards establishing a collective whole-school responsibility for raising pupils aspirations and achievement. Creating a whole-school learning culture This is a good time to remind ourselves what we should all be aiming for with regard to the deployment of teaching assistants and other associate staff.

We know that effective learning takes place in schools where achievement is valued and staff feel supported by each other and by their management team. Where there is a climate of acceptance for the workforce reforms and a whole-school approach that is orchestrated towards achievement for all – pupils, teachers and associate staff – the benefits that the reformed workforce can bring to learners are considerable. Carrying out whole-school reviews of learning teams will help you to promote dialogue about success. These can then be underpinned by policies and practice that you develop that are dynamic, experimental and future focused. With the appropriate support, planning, guidance and leadership, our associate staff teams can bring much to the improvement of whole-school teaching and learning.

Lynn Maidment, Independent Education Consultant, specialises in training, development and interim management related to school improvement and curriculum review Read how one establishment has changed they way their support staff are used;  at great benefit to the school

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