Rise Of The Teaching Assistant

18 Nov

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a good teacher.” Temple Grandin

Walk into most classrooms across Wales today and you will find a very different make up of staff than you would have a decade ago.

The numbers of teachers in Wales over the past decade has largely remained constant.

The total number of qualified teachers in nursery, primary, secondary, special and independent schools in 2001/2002 was 29,252.
The total number of qualified teachers in nursery, primary, secondary, special and independent schools in 2011/2012 was 28,153. A net difference of – 1,099

There are capacity issues with losing 1,099 teachers of course, and there are also fewer schools, but over the decade the total figure is roughly similar. However the pattern is very different when examining support staff.

The total number of support staff in 2001/2002 stood at 14,058. When you consider only those that actually had a role in the classroom it is closer to 9,600.
The total number of support staff in 2011/2012 is 26,644. A staggering increase of 12,586 individuals. If again you take out the non-classroom support staff the figure is 20,378. An increase of 10,778.

These figures show there has been a complete explosion in the role of teaching assistants over this period. The positive impact of this is that it has reduced some aspects of teachers workloads and helped support learning outcomes where teachers and TAs have effectively worked in tandem. However, where the big concern begins is when schools become reliant on teaching assistants to cover teachers PPA classes, illnesses and other leave. Not only are teaching assistants not supported or paid to do that role, quite simply, they are not qualified teachers and are not prepared for the challenge. While correlation does not always simply equate to causation, these statistics do raise questions as to potential the link between the supposed dip in Welsh educational attainment and the rise in number, and responsibilities, of teaching assistants in the country over the past ten years.

Research here from the ATL Union shows just how widespread the reliance is. Of the 1,400 people polled it was revealed that 32% of support staff took classes for absent teachers and 60% of these said they did the same work as fully qualified teachers. Even greater concern perhaps is that this is a growing trend. The poll also showed that 22% of support staff said they took more classes this year than last.

The fact that teaching assistants will be brought into registration by the successor body to the General Teaching Council for Wales (GTCW) through the Education (Wales) Bill is a further demonstration of the growing role this section of school staff have.

Let me be clear. There is a role for teaching assistants in schools. I am not doubting the important contribution they make. Ask any teacher how vital their teaching assistants are and they will say they are integral to the workings of a classroom. However, what we are increasingly seeing is the abuse of teaching assistants in expecting them to ‘deliver’ lessons to whole classes of children. This is neither fair on teaching assistants, the teaching profession and certainly is not for the children. The fact that on a daily basis across Wales there will be people other than qualified teachers teaching lessons is a scary thought when considered against the ambition to see us rise to the top twenty nations in the PISA rankings. If those rankings have taught us anything it is that those nations who invest in the quality of their classroom leaders who are the most successful. Having teaching assistants delivering lessons is detrimental to that goal.

Nowhere is this concern more evident than in the Foundation Phase. The Welsh Government put in place child to adult ratios in devising this policy. That is a good thing in ensuring that there is support for children and that they receive attention on an as individual as possible basis. What isn’t guaranteed is that this support will come from a qualified teacher. The ratios are adult-pupil not teacher-pupil and so the Foundation Phases has naturally become dominated, to an extent, by teaching assistants who can ensure those ratios are maintained but at a lower cost. We have to also accept of course that lower costs will inevitably equate to reduced pedagogical expertise. Is this one potential explanation as to why the Foundation Phase, for all its obvious successes, has been said by some to have variable delivery?

Another area where we see teaching assistants given more responsibility is in working with students with Special Educational Needs (SEN). As a result of funding cut backs to SEN services, as well as services being lost along the way with the move towards a regional consortia system, it is increasingly teaching assistants that are providing the one to one support in classrooms. This is an issue that will become ever more noticeable if the Robert Hill review’s drive towards federalisation is delivered. We are essentially allowing a situation to exist whereby those pupils who require the most help and who are hardest to reach are being taught by the staff with the least training and qualifications. This is not to belittle the skills of teaching assistants. It should be noted that there are teaching assistants working in Wales with years of experience but without the pedagogical, academic and professional qualifications of teachers, it is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect TAs to have the professional insight to be able to plan and deliver effective lessons of whatever nature. What is more, from their point of view they are also not paid to do so. It is unfair and unacceptable to those teaching assistants to put them in this position. It is nothing short of exploitation.

Teaching Assistants, properly utilised to their capabilities in supporting teachers can provide a big boost to performance, but qualified teachers they are not. Expecting them to be able to do the job of a teacher is akin to expecting a theatre nurse to perform the role of a neurosurgeon. Their roles are somewhat related but worlds apart, and parents and the public at large need to understand that difference.

Recently the Welsh Government announced that there would be greater access and investment in training for teaching assistants. Given the above detail of the growing presence and role of teaching assistants in the classroom then this is a good thing. The more training provided for those that are contributing to the education of children in the classroom the better. However, this must be matched by an equal commitment to ensuring proper continuing professional development for teachers. In fairness the Education Minister openly accepted in his Reform, Rigour and Respect speech that this is something that has not been delivered properly in the past in Wales.

It is of course right that we upskill and provide ongoing support for teaching assistants. Research by the Institute of Education argues that pupils are more likely to have active and sustained interactions with teaching assistants than they are teachers, yet TAs are often focused on task completion rather than learning outcomes. With that in mind it is essential that if we are to make the best use of TAs in the classroom environment they received support in developing the right skills. However this is no substitute for supporting professional teachers whose qualifications, pedagogical training, knowledge and skills have been proven to have the greatest impact on to a child’s development in the school environment.

We all know why the current situation exists. Welsh education is underfunded and that has forced schools to resort to ‘teaching on the cheap.’ The reality remains that unless we deal with this concern there is simply no hope of breaking into that ever elusive PISA top twenty.


Figures for numbers of teachers and support staff provided by Stats Wales.


More on the IoE’s work and realising the value of teaching assistants can be found here.

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