Why the latest research shows heads should give teaching assistants space to do their jobs

The Education Endowment Foundation has released its latest research on new tools for teaching assistants and called for them to be used more effectively in schools. Here, senior researcher Jonathan Sharples explains why the research is significant.

One of the challenging aspects of conducting honest, robust evaluations is that they often suggest, honestly and robustly, that the programmes and practices you intuitively favour are not as effective as you imagined. This perhaps should not come as a surprise.

Getting positive results in randomised controlled trials (RCTs) conducted at scale in real world conditions is difficult, illustrated by the fact that only 12 per cent of the RCTs commissioned by the Institute of Education Sciences (a US equivalent to the EEF) have shown positive effects. Whilst some of these findings may be due to poor implementation rather than poor interventions, it nevertheless points to a sobering scenario where, despite our best intentions, many of our efforts to improve teaching and learning are not having the impact we expect.

It is because of these trends that I think the latest evaluation findings from the EEF deserve such attention. The two projects that reported this week, Nuffield Early Language Intervention and REACH, both involve Teaching Assistants (TAs) delivering high-quality, targeted support to pupils who were struggling with their literacy (either one-to-one or in small groups). Both interventions produced over three additional months progress to pupils’ learning, compared to existing practice.

Whilst these results are encouraging in themselves, taken in the context of our previous evaluations this means that all six projects involving TA-led literacy/numeracy interventions have shown positive impacts on pupil’s learning, typically adding around three to four additional months progress (see table 1). Encouragingly, there are signs that these interventions disproportionality benefit low attaining and pupils eligible for free school meals, and so could be effective approaches to ‘narrow the gap’.

Table 1. Summary of RCT evaluation results for EEF-funded, TA-led interventions
Table 1 Summary of RCT evaluation results for EEF funded TA led interventions

Having worked in communicating the findings from research for over ten years, this is by far the most consistent, positive set of results I have seen for real-world RCTs, which I imagine will be difficult to repeat. So why might this be the case and what are the implications? As is so often the case, the devil is in the detail.

Crucially, the positive effects observed in these projects only occur 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. This was one of the key findings from the large-scale Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) study, which looked at typical ways in which TAs were being used in UK schools, and the impact they were having on pupil attainment.

The research team observed that the majority of TAs spent most of their time working in a direct, but informal, instructional role with pupils on a small group and one-to-one basis (both inside and outside of the classroom). Shockingly, the amount of time TAs had in this role was negatively correlated with pupil progress; a particularly striking finding given that schools spend nearly £5bn employing TAs each year, with more TAs than teachers now working in primary and nursery schools.

So what makes the difference here? Clearly, it is the amount and type of training, coaching and support provided by the school i.e. the content and delivery of the intervention, not whether an intervention is being used. In this sense, structured evidence-based programmes provide an excellent means of aiding high-quality delivery.

Last year, EEF published its first guidance report for schools, Making best use of Teaching Assistants, which I would recommend as a starting point for anyone looking to review and reframe the use of TAs in their school or classroom. Three of the seven recommendations cover the use of TAs in delivering out-of-class, targeted interventions in detail. To help you act on this evidence we have created a range of supplementary resources, such as an ‘interventions healthcheck’, and a Red Amber Green (RAG) self-assessment tool to monitor current practice against the guidance.

Overall, we suggest schools should adopt one or two well-chosen, and well-implemented, TA-led interventions, judiciously used to complement and extend class-based teaching and learning. Intervention sessions should be brief (<30mins), regular and sustained, with clear objectives and expectations. Teachers should have a good awareness of the structure and coverage of the programmes, and help pupils make connections between their learning in interventions and the wider curriculum. Headteachers need to ensure there is space and time for these interactions to occur.

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  1. “Shockingly, the amount of time TAs had in this role was negatively correlated with pupil progress; a particularly striking finding given that schools spend nearly £5bn employing TAs each year, with more TAs than teachers now working in primary and nursery schools.”

    This report seems to suggest that to resolve this problem we need to structure the TA interventions more, and involve teachers more in these structures. In my view the down side of this is that even more pressure is put on teachers who do not have the time to devote to this.

    Here’s an alternative but perhaps more radical idea.
    If current use of TAs has a negative effect on learning, it means that learning would be better without the TAs, when they are used in this way. Why not scrap TAs and use the money to pay for more teachers. An idea for the next EEF study perhaps?

    • Let me get this right, you’re suggesting TAs are replaced with more teachers? So, what, two teachers per class? Given an average teacher’s salary is around £28,000 whilst a TA’s is £11,805 that makes SO much financial sense.
      How about TAs are given the recognition as semi-professionals that they deserve? And like teachers, given the opportunity to develop professionally. Doesn’t that make FAR more economic sense?