A 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. For convenience, we’ll refer to them here collectively as TAs.
Our analysis revealed three key findings.
- TAs rarely get the subject and instructional knowledge they need before lessons. Instead, they tend to pick this information up during lessons.
- Maths emerged as the curriculum area in which TAs would like more training.
- 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. 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.
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.
 Data was collected anonymously.