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.