A new report has found that well deployed teaching assistants help raise a school’s attainment. David Gordon looks at the details

If the financial squeeze on schools tightens in the coming years, many governing bodies will find themselves scrutinising the staffing budgets that typically swallow up as much as 80% of their funds.

As they try to determine the most efficient way to spend on staff, governors and heads will be fascinated by the findings of a new report from the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) which concluded that spending extra money on staffing only leads to an improvement in pupils’ attainment if it is spent on teaching assistants.

Research carried out by Dr John Brown and Professor Alma Harris from the Institute of Education for the TDA led them to conclude that increases in funding for teaching assistants, more than additional expenditure on any other type of staff, leads to improvements in pupils’ results.

They found that, between 2005 and 2008, there was a statistically significant relationship between increases in expenditure on teaching assistants and improvements in attainment. In contrast, the study found no significant relationship between additional spending on other staff, whether teachers or associate staff, and subsequent improvements in attainment.

The researchers highlighted statistics showing that:

  • The proportion of curriculum/teaching staff who were TAs significantly increased from 13.4% to 17.8% in the three years from 2005 to 2008.
  • The proportion of all school staff who were TAs increased from 10% in 2005 to 13% in 2008.
  • The number of full-time equivalent TAs increased by 40% from 754 in 2005 to 1,058 in 2008.
  • The number of all other school full-time equivalent staff also increased by 8% from 6,507 in 2005 to 7,063 in 2008.
  • The ratio of TAs to teachers increased substantially over the period from one TA shared between 7.4 teachers in 2005 to one TA for every 5.6 teachers in 2008.

As well as demonstrating the benefits of increasing the number of TAs, the research also found that the absolute number of TAs in a school is associated with higher attainment – schools with fewer TAs didn’t get as good results.

At the launch of the report, Professor Harris pointed out that the research showed that teaching assistants still had to be used effectively if they were to make a difference to pupils’ achievement. ‘The key thing is not just to have more of them in schools but to ensure that they are well deployed in the classroom,’ she said.

The report suggests that the increased attainment might not necessarily be directly attributable to the work of the TAs. It quotes a recent DCSF research project which found that individual children given more hours of TA support made less progress. The researchers point out that, ‘In schools, many TAs are deployed to spend more time with children who are in need of greater support and who have acute behavioural, emotional or cognitive challenges that can impede their progress. It seems likely, therefore, that the degree of the challenges facing young people might mean that progress with such pupils, even on a one-to-one basis, may be minimal.’

This in turn leads to the conclusion that the increased attainment across the schools could be explained by the TAs allowing the teacher to focus on other students. ‘It could be argued,’ says the report, ‘that TA support may actually have the greatest benefit for other children in the class because it allows them to concentrate their attention on learning without disruption or distraction.’

Ofsted touched on similar issues in its recent report evaluating the effects of workforce reform in schools between 2003 and 2009. It pointed to the value of learning support assistants working with pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities, reporting that: ‘Nearly all the teachers interviewed reported that they valued support in lessons, because pupils with moderate or specific special educational needs and associated emotional, social and behavioural needs demanded a considerable amount of teachers’ time and often distracted other pupils.’
The inspectors observed that: ‘In nearly all the sessions of general support observed during the survey, teaching assistants worked with lower-attaining pupils or those most likely to disrupt the lesson.’

They also reported that: ‘When teaching assistants provided general support in class, they made less of a difference to pupils’ learning. Inspectors found a huge variation in the knowledge, expertise and abilities of support staff and in the capacity of teachers to supervise and direct their work.’

They concluded that: ‘Support was not effective when teachers became over-reliant on teaching assistants or made demands that were beyond the capabilities of these staff. Similarly, impact was limited when support staff were given passive roles that made too little use of their skills and expertise. In the most effective lessons, staff had a shared understanding of what constituted good teaching and good support.’

Its report also looked at the way schools used higher level teaching assistants, teaching assistants and learning support assistants to provide clearly structured and defined intervention programmes for pupils identified as not meeting their targets and concluded that support was most effective when the teaching assistants:

  • were well trained;
  • knew what was expected of them;
  • were aware of pupils’ targets;
  • were confident about assessing pupils’ progress.

In the coming months, many schools will want to look closely at their staffing arrangements. These two documents provide some useful pointers for helping to evaluate whether your school is using its staff as effectively and efficiently as possible.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2010

About the author: David Gordon is an author, writer, editor and qualified lecturer and has also been a parent governor. He has been the editor of School Governor Update since its launch in 2000