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Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants

Guidance to help primary and secondary schools make the best use of TAs

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While the number of teachers in mainstream schools in England has remained relatively steady over the last decade or so, the number of full-time equivalent TAs has more than trebled since 2000: from 79,000 to 243,700. Teaching assistants comprise over a quarter of the workforce in mainstream schools in England: 35% of the primary workforce, and 14% of the secondary school workforce. The number of full-time equivalent TAs has more than trebled since 2000: from 79,000 to 262,800. On the basis of headcount data, there are currently more TAs in English nursery and primary schools than teachers: 273,200 vs. 248,900.1 About 7% of TAs in state-funded schools have higher-level teaching assistant (HLTA) status.

A key reason for increasing the number of TAs was to help deal with problems with teacher workloads. In 2003, the government introduced The National Agreement to help raise pupil standards and tackle excessive teacher workload, in large part via new and expanded support roles and responsibilities for TAs and other support staff. The growth in the numbers of TAs has also been driven by the push for greater inclusion of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) into mainstream schools, with TAs often providing the key means by which inclusion is facilitated. Given that SEN pupils and low-attaining pupils are more likely to claim Free School Meals (FSM)1. TAs also work more closely with pupils from low-income backgrounds. Indeed, expenditure on TAs is one of the most common uses of the Pupil Premium in primary schools, a government initiative that assigns funding to schools in proportion to the number of pupils on FSM.

A combination of these factors means that schools now spend approximately £4.4 billion each year on TAs, corresponding to 13% of the education budget. This presents an excellent opportunity for improvements in practice, with such a large and already committed resource in place. The recommendations in this guidance recognise the fact that schools are operating within already tight budgets; however, noticeable improvements in pupil outcomes can be made through the thoughtful use of existing resources, without significant additional expenditure.


TAs should not be used as an informal teaching resource for low attaining pupils

The evidence on TA deployment suggests schools have drifted into a situation in which TAs are often used as an informal instructional resource for pupils in most need. This has the effect of separating pupils from the classroom, their teacher and their peers.

Although this has happened with the best of intentions, this evidence suggests that the status quo is no longer an option. 

School leaders should systematically review the roles of both teachers and TAs and take a wider view of how TAs can support learning and improve attainment throughout the school.


Use TAs to add value to what teachers do, not replace them

If TAs have a direct instructional role it is important they add value to the work of the teacher, not replace them – the expectation should be that the needs of all pupils are addressed, first and foremost, through high quality classroom teaching. Schools should try and organise staff so that the pupils who struggle most have as much time with the teacher as others. Breaking away from a model of deployment where TAs are assigned to specific pupils for long periods requires more strategic approaches to classroom organisation. Instead, school leaders should develop effective teams of teachers and TAs, who understand their complementary roles in the classroom.

Where TAs are working individually with low attaining pupils the focus should be on retaining access to high-quality teaching, for example by delivering brief, but intensive, structured interventions (see Recommendations 5 and 6).


Use TAs to help pupils develop independent learning skills and manage their own learning

Research has shown that improving the nature and quality of TAs’ talk to pupils can support the development of independent learning skills, which are associated with improved learning outcomes. TAs should, for example, be trained to avoid prioritising task completion and instead concentrate on helping pupils develop ownership of tasks.

TAs should aim to give pupils the least amount of help first. They should allow sufficient wait time, so pupils can respond to a question or attempt the stage of a task independently. TAs should intervene appropriately when pupils demonstrate they are unable to proceed.

EEF Guidance Report

Ensure TAs are fully prepared for their role in the classroom

Schools should provide sufficient time for TA training and for teachers and TAs to meet out of class to enable the necessary lesson preparation and feedback.

Creative ways of ensuring teachers and TAs have time to meet include adjusting TAs’ working hours (start early, finish early), using assembly time and having TAs join teachers for (part of) Planning, Preparation and Assessment (PPA) time.

During lesson preparation time ensure TAs have the essential ‘need to knows’:

  • Concepts, facts, information being taught
  • Skills to be learned, applied, practised or extended
  • Intended learning outcomes
  • Expected/required feedback.

Use TAs to deliver high quality one-to-one and small group support using structured interventions

Research on TAs delivering targeted interventions in one-to-one or small group settings shows a consistent impact on attainment of approximately three to four additional months’ progress (effect size 0.2–0.3). Crucially, these positive effects are only observed when TAs work in structured settings with high quality support and training. When TAs are deployed in more informal, unsupported instructional roles, they can impact negatively on pupils’ learning outcomes.

EEF Guidance Report

Adopt evidence-based interventions to support TAs in their small group and one-to-one instruction

Schools should use structured interventions with reliable evidence of effectiveness. There are presently only a handful of programmes in the UK for which there is a secure evidence base, so if schools are using programmes that are ‘unproven’, they should try and replicate some common elements of effective interventions:

  • Sessions are often brief (20–50mins), occur regularly (3–5 times per week) and are maintained over a sustained period (8–20 weeks). Careful timetabling is in place to enable this consistent delivery
  • TAs receive extensive training from experienced trainers and/or teachers (5–30 hours per intervention)
  • The intervention has structured supporting resources and lesson plans, with clear objectives
  • TAs closely follow the plan and structure of the intervention
  • Assessments are used to identify appropriate pupils, guide areas for focus and track pupil progress. Effective interventions ensure the right support is being provided to the right child
  • Connections are made between the out-of-class learning in the intervention and classroom teaching (see Rec 7).
EEF Guidance Report

Ensure explicit connections are made between learning from everyday classroom teaching structured interventions

Interventions are often quite separate from classroom activities. Lack of time for teachers and TAs to liaise allows relatively little connection between what pupils experience in, and away, from, the classroom. The key is to ensure that learning in interventions is consistent with, and extends, work inside the classroom and that pupils understand the links between them. It should not be assumed that pupils can consistently identify and make sense of these links on their own.

Guidance to help primary and secondary schools make the best use of TAs

assignment Download the full Guidance Report Full PDF: 4 MB
get_appSummary of recommendations poster The main recommendations summarised in a downloadable poster. [1 MB pdf]