In light of Durham County’s decision to cut teaching assistants’ pay, and the recent warning that teaching assistants risk being replaced by poorly-paid “interns”, Helen Saddler makes a case for the invaluable classroom support staff – and argues they need better professional development.

When you hear ‘Teaching Assistant’- what comes to mind?

“Jack of all trades”, first aider, playtime supervisor, indispensable, poorly qualified, substitute teacher?

All of the above came out of my 3-year PhD study into the role of teaching assistants (TAs) in primary schools across the UK. I heard many stories highlighting the positive impact TAs were thought to have on pupils’ learning, but I also heard many tales of woe, from pay cuts to poor status.

There has been a recent surge in interest around the role of TAs and their influence on pupils’ learning, initially sparked by some headline-grabbing reports that claimed many TAs were having little or, in some cases, a negative impact on pupil attainment.

But how could this be, when so many schools view them as vital to the smooth running of daily life?

It was during my initial teacher training, when faced with a class in which 26 children were identified with special educational needs, that I first became aware of the value of TAs. Julie (the TA in my class) had built strong relationships with many of the children – particularly those who had the strongest difficulties with their learning. Crucially, she didn’t just understand the learning needs of those children; she understood their social needs too. I decided to explore this idea further and embarked on a doctoral study.

If we know TAs are not always brilliant at teaching English and Maths, why don’t we re-conceptualise their role to take account of pupils’ social inclusion?

The role of TAs to support children with their social inclusion is one that emerged strongly in my research. It seems that TAs’ strong pastoral role often places them well to implement socially inclusive practices and support children to fully participate in school life. We know that if a child is happy, has friends and feels included then their learning will improve – and the same is true in the reverse.

So, if we know TAs are not always brilliant at teaching English and Maths (as the reports referenced above indicated) why don’t we re-conceptualise their role to take account of their potential influence on pupils’ social inclusion?

This re-conceptualisation could take place only if TAs are well managed, and this isn’t always easy – in many of our schools, we currently have an ineffective and unsustainable approach to working with TAs.

It is widely acknowledged that we often have the lowest trained, lowest paid and lowest qualified staff working with the highest need students and we expect them to take responsibility for the learning of those students. This isn’t getting results and is often causing real problems with job satisfaction amongst TAs.

This is not to say that TAs don’t have skills – they often have very strong skills in supporting children to make friends, feel included in school life and actually participate in lessons.

We can’t just pull TAs away from core subjects, nor should we, but we can integrate their skills with social inclusion into the support that they provide. We need to be more pro-active in giving TAs training and professional development opportunities that are relevant, useful and aligned with their interests. As the EEF recently highlighted, we need to make sure that when we ask TAs to implement intervention programmes, those programmes are evidenced and TAs are trained on how to implement them properly.

The government currently spends about £4 billion a year on TAs’ employment and there are over 200,000 TAs in mainstream primary schools alone. It’s about time we acknowledged their role in supporting pupils to participate, and gave them the proper tools to support learning, so that more children are better equipped for life after school.

Helen Saddler is Executive Director of Inclusive Classrooms and Senior Policy Officer, Education and Youth, Greater London Authority