Are teaching assistants doing more harm than good?

Published: 3rd Jun 2013

"Studies have found that those pupils who receive help from teaching assistants make less progress than classmates of similar ability."

The Daily Mail, 3 June 2013

We know from the Department for Education's (DfE) Workforce Survey that the number of teaching assistants (TAs) in academies and maintained schools went up by 6 per cent in the past year, building an army of 230,000 - roughly one for every two full-time teachers.

With most government departments facing cuts, the Daily Mail has reported that the Treasury and the DfE are currently considering whether to phase out classroom assistants in a bid to save - allegedly - around £4 billion.

This follows a report by the policy institute Reform, which argues that the Government can cut school spending without compromising standards. The think-tank has argued that "ministers should support schools that reduce numbers of teaching assistants and allow class sizes to rise".

According to the Daily Mail, the proposal is partly shaped by research which found that teaching assistants can have a negative impact on pupils' results.

Is this the case?

The study

The Daily Mail doesn't cite the source for its claim, however one obvious and relevant study in the field is an Institute of Education project on the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) which, according to the IoE, was the largest-ever study of the impact of support staff in schools.

The paper was published in 2009 but relates to research conducted between 2005/6 and 2007/8. The researchers compared the impact of different amounts of support from teaching assistants on pupils' progress in English, maths and science. The test results of over 8,000 pupils in 153 primary and secondary schools in England and Wales were examined. The researchers also interviewed teaching staff and observed classes.

What did the study find?

In short, the study suggested that pupils who receive help from teaching assistants make less progress than classmates of similar ability, social class and gender.

In fact, the study shows the more support pupils receive, the fewer gains they make.

Can we blame the lack of progress on teaching assistants?

According to Professor Blatchford, who led the team behind the project, we shouldn't.

He said:

"This is not the fault of TAs. Policymakers and school staff need to rethink the way TAs are used in classrooms and prepared for the tasks that teachers give them. This will help maximise their huge potential to help teachers and pupils."

Teaching assistants often work with small groups of children who need extra support in areas such as reading or maths. This can also include assisting children with special educational needs, who teachers can't always accommodate in a standard class.

So could it be that it's the pupils' characteristics which explains their slower progress? No - the study took into account the reasons why pupils received this support in the first place: lower achievement, learning and behaviour difficulties, and social class.

But are teaching assistants meant to increase pupils' progress at all? Is that part of their job description?

Teaching assistants are, after all, not substitutes for teachers. The study confirms that, as we might expect, the more time pupils spend with TAs, the less time they spend being taught by the teacher. So Reform argues that supporting schools who wish to reduce the number of TAs could enable them to hire better teachers as well as reduce the Department for Education budget.

On the other hand, the study also found that teaching assistants boost teachers' productivity, reduce their stress levels and improve classroom progress.

Conclusion

There is at least one important study that found what the Daily Mail said. But there is an ongoing debate about what this means for the future of teaching assistants.

The study, for example, also found that less than a quarter of teachers have been trained to manage TAs, and only a quarter of the teachers surveyed — only 1 in 20 in secondary schools — had allocated planning or feedback time with TAs. According to Professor Bletchford this was also crucial to their low-performance. 

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Flickr image courtesy of Vandy CFT


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