14 Aug 2022
By Mark Richards,
The role of the teaching assistant has changed immeasurably in recent years. There was a time when a teaching assistant was simply a teacher’s helper and an extra pair of hands in the classroom. They might have been called on to listen to children reading but equally they were as likely to be asked to photocopy worksheets or to put classroom displays up.
Nowadays, there is so much more expected from the role of the teaching assistant. It has evolved into very much a professional role. In many ways, the roles of the teaching assistant and the teacher are virtually indecipherable. A teaching assistant role is now a wholly professional one that puts a teaching assistant at the heart of the school team. Totally focused on learning, the TA is now a partner in lesson planning and data analysis.
Why has the role changed so much?
Following the national agreement of 2003 to tackle excessive teacher workload, many schools saw teaching assistants as the cost-effective way to improve student outcomes. However, a few years later, a Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) research project was extremely critical of the way teaching assistants were being employed in many schools. It was suggested that the students who were being supported by teaching assistants were too reliant and dependent on the support; that independent learning wasn’t being promoted enough; and the time pupils spent with teaching assistants was reducing the time that the class teacher was spending with the pupils who needed it most. It was found that the focus of teaching assistants working with pupils was often on completing a task rather than developing understanding.
As a result, the advice and thinking about how teaching assistants should be deployed changed.
Advice for how to make best use of teaching assistants
Most importantly, teaching assistants should be adding value to the work of teachers, not replacing or substituting them. Primarily, teaching assistants should be helping pupils to develop independent learning skills and to manage their own learning. Because of this, teaching assistants should receive appropriate training and professional development. Crucially, they should also be given plenty of opportunities to plan lessons and assess pupils’ learning with the class teacher.
How to promote independent learning
Although teaching assistants have always been a great help to the class teacher, it was fair to say that in the past they became a crutch for the student – a crutch that the student eventually felt that they could not do without.
To promote the importance of independent learning, teaching assistants should give the right amount of support at the right time. Pupils should be encouraged to take risks in their learning and to have responsibility for their learning. A good way of doing this is to give the least amount of support initially, so that pupils can claim ownership of a task. Open-ended questions should always be used to develop pupils’ thinking. Task completion should never be a priority. Similarly, pupils need to be given plenty of thinking and response time.
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