Dr Kevan Collins explains the thinking behind the new EEF teaching assistants’ campaign

Teaching assistants are a substantial part of the education workforce, with over 300,000 employed by English primary and secondary schools.

Yet they’re a relatively modern classroom phenomenon and the rapid increase in their numbers has changed the way that many classrooms operate. Teaching assistants fulfil a range of roles, from administrative support to working closely with individual children, who may be struggling or have special educational needs. In some cases, teaching assistants effectively act as substitute teachers for the pupils with the greatest need.

Unfortunately, we know from a number of studies that many schools have struggled to train and support teaching assistants in ways which benefit pupils. Evidence summarised in the Teaching and Learning Toolkit suggests that on average teaching assistants have a small positive impact on learning, but highlights that for some children, particularly those from low-income families, working with a teaching assistant was actually associated with a negative impact on learning. It is likely that in these cases the support provided from a teaching assistant comes at the expense of, rather than in addition to, attention from the classroom teacher.

Given the existing evidence and the estimate that £4.4bn is spent on their employment each year, it’s not surprising that teaching assistants have been given a rough ride: it’s all too easy to make a simplistic case for reducing their numbers by stating that they are costly and ineffective.

But to do so would be wrong. Recent trials conducted at the Education Endowment Foundation paint a different and much more positive picture: when used to deliver targeted interventions in one-to-one or small group settings, teaching assistants were found to be worth as much as an extra term’s learning to pupils.

The potential impact of 300,000 well-used teaching assistants on pupil attainment is huge. In order to enable this, we need to make sure the evidence-informed approach to their use becomes the rule, and not the exception. This will require care and effort, but promises so many more benefits, particularly for the most at-risk pupils.

This is why the EEF is publishing its first guidance report today. By providing seven practical and evidence-based recommendations, Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants aims to give teachers and headteachers the help them to unlock the potential of teaching assistants.

Crucially, the majority of the recommendations focus on teachers and school leaders. Improving the impact of teaching assistants is about the training and qualifications of individuals. But all the training in the world will be wasted unless teaching assistants and classroom teachers work effectively together. This is about communication and deployment. If a teaching assistant learns about the lesson objectives at the same time as the class, their opportunity to contribute to learning is slim.

Today’s report signals a long-term commitment by the EEF to maximise the impact of teaching assistants in English schools. The seven recommendations will inform a £5m campaign that will focus on West and South Yorkshire, regions where the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils is large and there are a significant number of schools with a high percentage of disadvantaged pupils.

We will partner with regional champions and work with over 1,000 primary schools in the area to help them understand and apply the guidance and recommendations. Schools with large numbers of disadvantaged pupils will receive funding to implement targeted interventions, benefiting 13,800 pupils in total.

Ultimately, however, the responsibility lies with school leaders. It’s down to them to act on today’s report and ensure that their teaching assistants are given the best possible support and guidance so that pupils can have the best possible educational experience. There is everything to gain and nothing to lose by doing this.

Dr Kevan Collins is the Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation.

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