Teaching Assistants: reconceptualising the role

Helen Saddlerpost by HELEN SADDLER
ESRC-funded doctoral student, University of York and consultant Senior Policy Advisor, Education and Youth Team, Greater London Authority

It is widely acknowledged that Teaching Assistants (TAs) have a prominent influence on the education of children in mainstream primary schools. However, the role of TAs is regarded by many educational professionals and researchers to be both highly complex and unclear. TAs undertake numerous pastoral and educational responsibilities within their role on a daily basis. Taking account of all of these in a role descriptor is very difficult.

The management structures holding responsibility for TAs’ role vary widely in primary schools. Staff members with various positional responsibilities have been found to be responsible for managing TAs, which increases the difficulty in understanding the national picture of their deployment.

Over the past five years TAs have received a lot of negative press, primarily as a result of two high profile research papers that suggested TAs have little or no effect on pupil attainment (Blatchford, Bassett, Brown & Webster, 2009; Higgins, 2011). However, teachers overwhelmingly regard TA support as invaluable. Despite this, the positive influence of TAs is still not yet fully understood.

TAs predominantly work with children identified with Special Educational Needs (SEN), historically as part of a one-to-one key worker system. Yet, due to lack of funding and increased bureaucracy in the old SEN ‘Statementing’ system, TAs now typically operate within a small group working model of support. This model often involves taking groups outside of the classroom, which is viewed by many as a barrier to children learning in a common, inclusive environment.

The role of TAs is therefore strongly linked with the educational experiences of children who are arguably the most vulnerable and require the pedagogical skills of a teacher to engage in learning. Since the current model of TA deployment involves delegating a lot of the traditionally teacher-led tasks to TAs, they have become the primary first teachers of many children identified with SEN. With this model of deployment, it should not be a surprise that TAs have been found to have little or no benefit on the educational outcomes of the pupils they work with. TAs typically don’t have access to the pedagogical training that defines the role of the teacher. As such, their abilities to teach are necessarily limited, as Julie Radford also addresses in her blog post.

Thus, there is a need for educational policy to reconceptualise the role of the TA to take account of the disparity between their rhetoric of their role descriptor and the reality of their day to day practice. We either need to: a) professionalise the role, and adjust the access to training and pay to reflect the pedagogical nature of TAs’ practice, or b) redefine what effective deployment looks like for these important staff members. I will now explore a suggestion for the latter, which arose from my Masters research and is being developed in my doctoral studies (Saddler, 2013).

Children identified with SEN are overwhelmingly more likely to experience bullying, victimisation and marginalisation than their non-SEN peers. As a result, they are more likely to have difficulties in being socially included within the learning environment. As TAs spend such a large proportion of their time with these children, it makes sense that their role be rooted in facilitating social inclusion. Since social inclusion and academic outcomes are inextricably linked, a focus on improving social inclusion will necessarily improve academic performance for these children, and vice versa (Black-Hawkins, 2010). To illustrate my point with an example, instead of attempting to teach subject knowledge to a child who is struggling to participate in the learning environment, a more effective task for TAs could be to teach him/her how to work in a group, or raise his/her hand to ask or answer a question. This would then allow that child to gain the confidence and competence needed to participate in the learning environment, which then provides access to the learning process.

There is a need to conduct further research that explores the role of TAs in relation to a variety of outcomes, beyond academic attainment, to ensure that the influence of TAs on the educational experiences of children is fully understood. Academic outcomes are undoubtedly key indicators of influence. However, social outcomes must also be explored if we are to gain a complete understanding of their role. We need to find a way to unlock the positive influence of such an invaluable resource in children’s education. For now, let’s promote policies that allow TAs to provide the additional support that their role was originally designed to afford, instead of the alternative support that they are currently expected to provide.



Black- Hawkins, K. (2010). The Framework for Participation: a research tool for exploring the relationship between achievement and inclusion in schools. International Journal of Research & Method in Education. 33 (1). p.21-40.

Blatchford, P., Bassett, P., Brown, P. & Webster, R. (2009) ‘The effect of support staff on pupil engagement and individual attention.’ British Educational Research Journal, 35 (5), p. 661–86.

Higgins, S. (2011) Toolkit of Strategies to Improve Learning Summary for Schools. Spending the Pupil Premium.

Saddler, H. (2013). Researching the influence of teaching assistants on the learning of pupils identified with special educational needs in mainstream primary schools: exploring social inclusion. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs. 14 (3). p.145-152.


One thought on “Teaching Assistants: reconceptualising the role”

  1. Readers interested in the role of teaching assistants in secondary schools in England may be interested to see a comparison of TA staffing levels in England compared with those in over 30 other countries in the national report on the TALIS 2013 survey in DfE Research Report 302, written by me and colleagues at IOE and published in June 2014 (see Ch 2, section 3). The report is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/teachers-in-secondary-schools-evidence-from-talis-2013

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