Teaching Assistant Focus

Make a difference to special needs education

Home » Articles posted by Rob Webster

An Inspector Calls…. TAs’ experiences of Ofsted by Rob Webster

Teaching Assistant Ofsted ExperiencesLast term, we posted an invitation on this website and on social media asking TAs to share their experiences of Ofsted. We had over 60 responses from TAs, the majority (73%) of who worked in primary/infant schools; 20% worked in secondary settings and 6% in special schools.

Many TAs described the pressure and tension that formal inspection brings. ‘Ofsted hysteria’, as one TA put, is an endemic condition in English schools, and there are many accounts and reports attesting to the stress of and fallout from being ‘Ofsteded’. For teachers and school leaders, the long shadow Ofsted casts over their working lives has serious implications for their mental wellbeing.

Our aim was to find out to what extent, if any, TAs are included in and affected by the inspection process. Our sample was not scientifically selected, so we cannot make any generalisable claims based on the evidence we collected. Nevertheless, our analysis offers some insight into how TAs experience inspection and what it means for them. We have used some of the comments sent to us to illustrate some of the findings[1].

It is an open secret that the call from Ofsted causes school leaders and teachers to raise their game like nothing else. The frenzy before a visit prompts a comparison with the old joke that the Queen thinks the world smells of fresh paint. It was no surprise then that a number of TAs reported how normal routines and practices were changed when inspectors were due.

“Ofsted do not get a true impression of how the school runs on a daily basis… Where TAs would cover PPA during inspection, teachers often take back their classes”.

“Some TAs were taken off normal duties with pupils and given resource work to do instead of being part of inspection”.

These, and some other practices TAs reported, suggest that schools behave in ways they hope would prime the outcome.

“TAs were told… how to respond to questions they may ask us”.

“The teacher had giving me instructions to keep an SEN child out of the classroom because didn’t want to fail the observation”.

There was a sense in which decisions made by teachers and school leaders played to the expectations of inspectors, but put TAs in awkward positions.

“When Ofsted come into school normal routines are changed and we are suddenly asked to be in class – then a complaint is made that we are ‘just sitting in class’. I feel like we can’t win”.

As one HLTA, who was observed leading a Reception class while the teacher had PPA, described:

“[Inspector’s] comments were fair – too long on the carpet, but I had been advised to keep them sitting as long as possible by the class teacher!”

The Ofsted inspection framework states that evaluations must be supported by observations and supplementary evidence that may include ‘discussions about teaching and learning with teachers, TAs and other staff’. Yet only a handful of TAs reported that they were interviewed or were mentioned in the feedback to school leaders. Those that did mostly described positive experiences:

“[Inspectors] Were keen to know how I supported progress and learning. Positive feedback given in terms of what they saw – they liked that I didn’t sit with one child. They liked that I promoted independent working and that I knew targets and what the child needed to do to get there”.  Secondary TA

Many more TAs reported that they felt excluded from the inspection process. Several TAs reported that once the notice of inspection had been given, preparation happened around them, rather than with them.

“Very secretive… Feel like you aren’t included or important enough to be consulted with”.

Many TAs reported that they were not included in the inspection process: they felt overlooked in observations and their views were not sought.

“Throughout the inspection I wasn’t spoken to by any of the inspectors and they didn’t appear to take any notice or pay any interest in how I was supporting the child”.

“They didn’t ask us any questions or give us any feedback”.

TAs felt that being ‘ignored’ by inspectors suggested that their contribution was not valued.

“Your support in helping teacher for the lesson seems to go unnoticed. Makes you feel forgotten”.

“I have been through 3 Ofsted inspections, during all 3 I found that for the most part I was ignored by Ofsted inspectors and have found some of the inspectors to be rude, as if being a TA isn’t important”.

Remember, our survey was relatively informal, so we cannot be certain to what extent these experiences are shared more widely. Some meaningful research into TAs’ experiences of Ofsted would make a useful additional to that we have on teachers’ experiences.

Nevertheless, it is worth speculating on why there seems to be variation and vagueness in relation to Ofsted’s inclusion of TAs in the inspection process. Historically, Ofsted guidance relating to TAs is very limited. In the new 88 page School Inspection Handbook, TAs get just four mentions; three of them in just one 53 word paragraph.

This paragraph instructs inspectors to ‘evaluate the use of and contributionmade by TAs’. To do this, inspectors focus on school leaders and teachers, as it they who make the decisions about how TAs are used. This might explain why TAs feel ignored in observations. There is also the added factor of accountability. Regardless of any input from TAs, it is teachers, not TAs, who are answerable when it comes to pupils’ academic outcomes.

The rest of the paragraph asks inspectors to ‘consider whether TAs are clear about their role and knowledgeable about the pupils they support’. One would imagine that to determine this reliably, inspectors should consult TAs. Yet the experience of many TAs responding to our survey suggests this issue is either not considered or a judgment is reached on the basis of some other information.

Arguments for and against school inspection are well rehearsed, and until (or unless) a potential alternative is found, it looks like Ofsted is here to stay. Calls for reform of Ofsted (and its abolition) are based not only on the stress and pressure it puts school leaders and teachers under, but also the basis on which it makes unreliable and inconsistent judgments on schools.

The more immediate issue in relation to our survey is how should TAs feature as part of inspection. Given that TAs represent a quarter of the school workforce, and a third of the primary school workforce, it seems remiss not to include them in the formal evaluation of school processes and outcomes. For that to happen though, we need a clear sense of what it is TAs are expected to contribute.

Presently, the Ofsted framework reflects the gaping hole in national education policy and practice where there should be a clearly defined role and purpose to the TA role. As the education world steels for next May’s general election, we will be keeping an eye on political leaders to see if they can come up with an answer.

[1] All italicised comments are from TAs working in primary and infant schools settings, unless stated otherwise.

TA Focus Teaching Assistant Training Survey by Rob Webster

Teaching Assistant Training SurveyA few months back, TA Focus invited TAs to complete a short survey on training. We wanted to know how TAs acquired knowledge and skills in relation to curriculum subjects (what to teach), instruction (how to teach it) and SEN. More importantly, we wanted to find out what kinds of training TAs would find most useful in terms of improving their confidence in these three areas.

We had just under 50 responses from TAs, LSAs, HLTAs, classroom assistants and special needs assistants[1]. For convenience, we’ll refer to them here collectively as TAs.

Our analysis revealed three key findings.

  1. TAs rarely get the subject and instructional knowledge they need before lessons. Instead, they tend to pick this information up during lessons.
  2. Maths emerged as the curriculum area in which TAs would like more training.
  3. TAs are more confident in their knowledge of SEN than in their knowledge of subjects and instruction, but would like more training in the different types of SEN.

Let’s explore each of these findings in more detail.

Picking up information during lessons

Listening to the teachers’ whole class input at the start of the lesson emerged as the main way the majority of TAs acquired subject and instructional knowledge[2]. A third of TAs said this was the way they ‘always’ or ‘almost always’ obtained subject and instructional knowledge, with a further 42% stating they ‘often’ obtained this information this way.

In other words, TAs routinely find themselves in a situation when they obtain knowledge about the lesson actually in the lesson. As one TA explained: “Often TAs are straight into the lesson without knowing what it is about”.

About 40% of TAs said teachers’ lesson plans and other documents (such as schemes of work) routinely provided them with the information they needed. For a small number of TAs, the availability of these documents seemed to vary. As one TA put it: “Medium and long term are available to me, but I rarely see lesson plans – but they do appear at Ofsted!”

As our survey sample was not scientifically selected, we have to be careful about generalising from the results; however, there is a lot of consistency between these findings and what has been found in the broader research on training in relation to TAs’ acquisition of subject and instructional knowledge.

One finding to emerge in our analysis, which is perhaps less evident in the wider research, was the frequency with which TAs relied on their own research or reading to acquire knowledge. Nearly 40% of TAs reported that this was the way they ‘always’ or ‘almost always’ obtained such information, with a further 46% saying they ‘often’ obtained knowledge via their own enquiry.

Although it’s not possible to make grand claims on the basis of this data, this finding may reflect something we do know about TAs from the wider research: that their readiness for lessons often owes much to their willingness to use their own time in order to prepare.


Further training in maths

We asked some open-ended questions about the type of training TAs would like to help their confidence in relation to subject and instructional knowledge (i.e. curriculum topics and how to teach to them). There was a wide range of responses. A small number of TAs said they would like more training in ICT, but the clearest pattern to emerge was that a quarter of respondents to these questions wanted more support with maths. A common refrain was in relation to being out of touch with new teaching methods in this subject. Several TAs made the same point: that ways of teaching “have changed a lot since I was at school”.

Taken together with the first key finding (picking up subject knowledge in lessons), some TAs made the point that improving TAs’ pre-lesson preparation – more information, more timely – is, as one put it, “probably the best thing for increasing TA effectiveness”. Where a similar picture has been shown in the wider research, the same conclusion has been reached.


SEN expertise

Our final key finding is in relation to TAs’ training for SEN. 31% of TAs said their knowledge of SEN was ‘greater than’ that of teachers, and another 31% said it was ‘equivalent’. Far fewer TAs claimed that their subject and instructional knowledge in curriculum areas was at the equivalent of that of teachers or greater.

Put another way, TAs tend to position teachers as the subject and teaching specialists, while they seem more confident in their knowledge of SEN, compared to teachers. Again, taking care not to make unsupported generalisations, we get similar results when the same questions are asked to bigger samples of TAs and teachers – especially in secondary schools.

As we found for other forms of knowledge, TA reported that they tended to acquire knowledge about SEN via their own research and reading (84%). Talking to teachers and SENCos (56%) and via training (51%) were the next more common ways in which they obtain SEN knowledge.

From the answers to our open-ended questions, we found a clear appetite among the TAs in our sample for more training on specific types of SEN. Half of the TAs responding to this question wanted more training on conditions such as Aspergers, dyslexia and ADHD.



Our survey results may be based on a small and self-selecting sample of TAs, but there are two things we can take from the findings.

Firstly, there are the echoes of findings from wider research in terms of TAs’ pre-lesson preparedness. We know that TAs’ performance in the classroom is often reliant on the quality of the preparation and information they receive from teachers. But what is sometimes overlooked is how much valuable information TAs acquire in relation to pupils’ learning during lessons, which would greatly enhance teachers’ task planning. All the evidence points to schools needing to get better at making TA feedback a fundamental part of teachers’ planning-teaching-feedback cycle. For this to be effective, TAs need to be clear about what and how they support children in class.

Secondly, whilst it is encouraging to hear that TAs want to get even better at supporting children with SEN by developing a greater understanding of their needs, this needs to happen alongside, not instead of, SEN training for teachers. There is a wealth of research on how teacher training has, over several decades, failed to provide teachers with the kind of knowledge, skills and confidence regarding SEN that TAs seem to possess. With the forthcoming changes to how schools are expected to meet the needs of children with SEN, it is important that teachers and TAs are given the opportunity for joint professional development in this area.

[1] Data was collected anonymously.

[2] Click here to download a copy of the survey questions.

A quiet revolution. How small changes to TA practice can yield big results

By Rob Webster – Researcher Associate, Institute of Education, London

In my previous post for TA Focus, I considered why the threat to cut TA jobs discussed in the media would be a bad move for schools and politicians. In this post, I want to reflect on the intrinsic value of TAs. I have the privilege of working an ever-growing number of schools that are involved in a ‘quiet revolution’. They are making small adjustments to TAs’ practice that have potentially far-reaching consequences for pupil learning.

Here, I draw on this work to explore some things you can do to sharpen your practice and maximise your contribution to the classroom.

1. Know your role

Teacher-TA liaison time before lessons is rare, so TAs often go into classes without knowing what will be taught, what tasks will be done or what the teacher expects from the pupils TAs support. TAs sometimes fall into the trap of thinking the teacher expects pupils to complete the work set and to complete it correctly. So learning can get bypassed in favour of ‘getting the job done’.

Good teachers make the role they want TAs to take in lessons explicit, and do not rely on TAs having to mind-read. Broadly speaking, TAs can only be as effective as teachers enable them to be. So they need to think carefully about TAs’ contribution to learning and communicate their intentions. Insist on knowing what the teacher expects from you at the start of the lesson. Ask her what skills or knowledge the pupils you support should be developing, and what learning she wants them to achieve by the end of the lesson.

2. Hold your nerve

Research has found that TAs’ interactions with pupils can be unintentionally unhelpful. Compared with teachers, TAs do more heavy prompting and spoon-feeding. Let me be clear: I do not blame TAs for this. As we know, unclear expectations have a part to play in this. But such interactions inadvertently get in the way of learning. Much of TAs’ behaviour is driven by a need to say something, when it might actually be better to leave space for pupils to think, talk and work. So how can TAs act differently in their talk with pupils?

Firstly, ensure pupils have enough time to process and think about their answers when you or the teacher asks them a question. Do not worry about the few awkward moments of silence. Secondly, avoid the temptation to give or lead pupils to the answer. In those moments of silence, TAs can feel the urge to end the pupil’s struggle. Instead, encourage them to draw on their ‘learning toolkit’ to help them help themselves (see below). Finally, know when to take a step back. Gradually fading out adult support creates opportunities for pupils to practise and grow their self-scaffolding skills.

3. Make what you say count

Interactions with pupils are at the heart of learning. For example, how we pose questions has a considerable bearing on how pupils develop as learners. TAs are privileged insofar as they get that ‘quality time’ with pupils that teachers have less of: working one-to-one and with small groups. So make it count.

One thing we have seen lots of schools do is train and encourage TAs to use more effective questioning. This includes asking more open-ended questions. There are plenty of resources on-line you can refer to give you some ideas: here is a good introductory video.

4. Knowing what to do when you don’t what to do

One potentially transformative style of questioning is what we call ‘knowing what to do when you don’t what to do’. Put simply, this means answering a question with another question. For example, if a pupil asks you how to spell ‘ceiling’, the most obviously helpful response is to spell it out letter by letter.  But this squanders a valuable opportunity for learning. Alternative responses ensure the responsibly for learning remains with the pupil; for instance:

  • “How can use your knowledge of phonics to help you spell it?”
  • “Are there any spelling rules you know that might help?” (I before E, expect after C)
  • “Is there a resource you can use to help you”? (a dictionary).

An overarching aim of education is to develop self-sufficient learners, comfortable with taking measured risks. Assisting pupils to handle challenges and uncertainty at the early stages of developing their stores of knowledge and skills is a vital part of achieving this aim for every pupil. Done well, this is something that TAs could contribute to enormously.

5. Extracting the learning juice

Whether we like it or not, a major part of learning is failure. David Beckham could not do this the first time he pulled on a pair of football boots; it took him years of practice, experimentation and learning from his mistakes. TAs often work with struggling pupils who develop a negative self-image of themself as a learner; those who think they are not as competent or successful as their peers. Some develop avoidance or dependence strategies: “Safer to wait for my TA to tell me the answer, than risk giving it a go and getting it wrong again”. But taking shortcuts on the learning journey cements dependency and ensures this notion of self is reinforced, not challenged.

There is no better way to show how messy the learning process is than by using your own experiences. Do not be afraid to show when you do not know the answer to a question or understand a concept or process. Use these moments as opportunities to show what good learners do by modelling the processes of finding out and experimenting with answers (e.g. what to do when you don’t what to do).

A colleague of mine talks about ‘extracting the learning juice’ from challenging situations. When pupils you support succeed at something tricky, be sure to spend a moment discussing what they have learned about learning. Get them to acknowledge when their persistence has paid off or how a piece of work grows as a result of drafting and redrafting.

To sum up, if effective interactions are at the heart of good learning, as the research tells us it is, then improving how TAs interact with pupils could add serious value to the classroom. Also, it is something schools, teachers and TAs themselves can begin to improve tomorrow at relatively low cost. Given the potential we could unleash, perhaps it is time to join the revolution?

TA cuts: A Reform too far? Five things for policy-makers to consider

By Rob Webster – Researcher Associate, Institute of Education, London

Earlier this year, media reports suggested that the Treasury and the Department for Education were considering phasing out the 232,000 teaching assistants working in schools to save around £4billion a year in public expenditure – a move that would get rid of a massive 25% of the school workforce.

The source of the story was a report from the Reform thinktank. Six months on, we have yet to see a diminution in the number of TA jobs; nor, for now, does it look likely. In response to the Reform report, the DfE said it is not their place to interfere in staffing decisions; this is a matter for individual schools – not Whitehall.

We might debate how helpful it is that policy-makers are staying out of this particular education debate. But as long as this remains the case, I think it is a matter of time before the issue of TAs, impact and value for money once again makes headlines. When it does, politicians are sure to be asked what is to be done.

Forewarned is forearmed, so here are five things ministers – both serving and shadow – should consider if they are thinking seriously about reducing TA numbers.

1. IF (big if) the TA role was phased out, it is not, as the media reports suggest, 232,000 TAs jobs that would go; it is closer to 327,000. The former figure masks the fact that the official stats in these reports are based on the full-time equivalent number of TAs working in mainstream and special schools in England. Yet many TA roles are part-time. Government data show that there are actually 359,200 individual TAs employed in these schools. Leaving aside the 32,600 TAs working in special schools, where the role is more established, doing away with TAs could result in adding over 300,000 people to those out of work; enough to increase the current number of people who are unemployed by 15%.

2. With only 7% of the TA workforce being men, mass TA redundancy would have a disproportionate impact on women. In the run up to the 2015 election, such a move would not only go down badly with female voters, but it is unlikely to play well with other people in low-paid, part-time public sector jobs.

3. TAs tend not to be paid over the lunch hour, so many of them, especially those in primary schools, also hold a position as a midday supervisor. Schools can find midday roles hard to fill, but TAs doing lunchtime duties is more than an arrangement of convenience. The consistency of familiar faces supporting pupils in the less structured environments of the dinner hall and the playground can go unnoticed, but is hugely valued by schools. Reform’s proposal to get rid of TAs in such large numbers would almost certainly create the additional and unintended problem of decimating the school lunchtime workforce.

4. Teachers, who have been in dispute with the government for a while over pensions, pay and workload, are unlikely to want to take on lunchtime duties in the absence of TAs. Teachers know that TAs are invaluable in reducing their workload and feelings of stress. Fewer or no TAs would mean busy teachers’ workload would increase. We have been here before, of course. The increase in TA numbers we have seen over the last 10 years was in direct response to a recruitment and retention crisis in teaching.

5. As my colleague, Peter Blatchford, and I concluded in a recent study, TAs are central to the good work schools do in teaching and including pupils with the highest level of special educational needs in mainstream settings. The repeated failure to address SEN as part of initial teacher training means that many teachers are inadequately prepared to meet the needs of the pupils who struggle most with learning and engagement. There is a real risk that under current conditions policies of inclusion could fail without the paraprofessional tier.

Good reasons though these might be for retaining TAs, they are somewhat external to TAs themselves. Surely there are good reasons for holding on to TAs that have more to do with what they contribute to the teaching and learning environment, than the fact that they act as some kind of ‘educational sticking plaster’ to save other policies from failing or making politicians look bad.

As a recent TA Focus blog highlighted, my colleagues at the Institute of Education, London and I have been working with local authorities and schools to help them release the huge potential of TAs. Our research makes it clear that it is the decisions that are made about TAs, not by TAs, that best explain why TA support does not have the impact on pupils we assumed it would. This is why our message about the need for change is directed at school leaders. 

But what of TAs themselves? In this post, I consider five things that TAs can do to improve their contribution to the classroom.