Research says students make additional two to four months’ progress when small groups get structured help from assistants.
Teaching assistants, whose contribution to learning has been called into question in recent years, have been shown to improve pupils’ attainment, two studies show.
Schools spend £4bn a year – or 10% of the total education budget – on 24,000 TAs, but some headteachers have cut back on numbers after previous research raised doubts about the impact of TAs on learning.
The latest research, however, shows that when TAs are used in a focused way – to deliver structured, high-quality support to small groups or individual children – pupils make an additional two to four months’ progress.
Evaluation of the two studies was funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) charity, which says there is compelling evidence that should help shape the way TAs are used in schools to ensure they improve pupils’ results.
Sir Kevan Collins, EEF chief executive, said: “Teaching assistants have been much maligned in recent years and many schools have scaled back on their employment to cut costs. But today’s results prove that when they’re used to deliver small-group interventions, they can have a great impact on pupils’ attainment.
“With so many teaching assistants employed across the country, schools now have compelling evidence to make sure they’re using their own teaching assistants in ways that really improve results.”
Traditionally TAs have been used in classrooms as substitute teachers for low-attaining pupils, but with concerns that they are having little or no impact on learning, pressure has been growing to find the most effective ways of using them.
In the past five years the EEF has commissioned evaluations of six TA-led interventions, with more than 2,000 children in just under 150 schools. In all of them, TAs are trained to deliver structured sessions to small groups or individual pupils; all six trials, including the latest two published on Friday, show a positive impact on learning.
The first, the Nuffield Early Language Intervention, gave TAs three days of training with detailed lesson plans to lead short, structured sessions on topics such as time and what we wear, with small groups of nursery and reception pupils.
The 30-week programme at 34 schools and nurseries improved the vocabulary, grammar and listening skills of four- and five-year olds by up to four months. A shorter 20-week version in the first two terms of primary school resulted in pupils making two months’ additional progress.
In the second trial, a targeted reading support programme called Reach, TAs were used to improve the reading skills of struggling readers in years seven and eight in secondary school, with one-to-one sessions focused on reading aloud three times a week for 20 weeks.
Pupils made the equivalent of four months’ additional progress, but those who took part in a version with a greater focus on language comprehension made six months’ progress.
The evaluation of the study expressed reservations about these findings, however, because the trial was smaller than expected and had to be phased because of delays recruiting schools. There were also concerns that almost 30% of pupils did not complete all the tests at the end of the project.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “This research is a pivotal contribution to a critical debate: do the billions invested in teaching assistants make a real difference? The answer according to the EEF is yes, if schools deploy and support them properly.
“This is the reality behind many education interventions. It is not just what you do, but how you do it. Good ideas, poorly implemented, fail. Good teaching assistants, poorly managed, fail to help. Well managed, they are a vital part of our schools.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We trust heads, governors and academy trusts to plan their staffing in a way that best meets the needs of their pupils. Support staff are best used when they add value to what teachers do, not when they replace them.”
The Guardian article