Teaching assistants are a strong presence in some schools where there are nearly as many of them as teachers but less so in other schools where there are a noticeable lack of them. They are there to assist the teacher in lessons or to carry out intervention work. They work with whole classes, groups of pupils and individual pupils. TAs also often contribute to extra-curricular activities and lunch and break time supervision of pupils.
There are over 150,000 TAs in England and considerably more if you include all support staff. Their use and deployment are of considerable debate and they do polarise opinion. There are some that argue that they are not needed and have no impact on the educational achievement of pupils. Some people even go as far as to argue that they have a negative impact on pupils’ attainment as they hold students back by doing the work for them. A few red-top newspapers have run articles criticising teaching assistants. At the other end of the spectrum, there are some who laud them and say they are a valuable source of help for pupils and teachers both in and outside of the classroom. They recognise that TAs can contribute to extra-curricular activities and support pupils well, particularly vulnerable pupils that have SEN.
It is hard not to be biased on this issue as this is the profession that I want to go into when I finish my degree. Of the schools I have worked in, TAs have performed such a variety of roles including sporting, administrative, classroom, intervention and extra-curricular delivery. They are truly skilled individuals who do such a wide and diverse amount of work in schools. You need a lot of knowledge to be able to carry out a teaching assistant role.
It also takes a lot of patience and people skills to be a successful teaching assistant as you have to work with pupils and teachers of varying personalities. It is really rich and rewarding work and inevitably you build up good relationships with pupils who tend to see you at more of their level than the teacher. Of course TAs have to deal with discipline and behaviour management to but they do so on a less regular basis than teachers.
This could be one of the first criticisms of the teaching assistant role: that although they get on well with pupils and develop good working relationships with them because of this it can be hard for TAs to discipline pupils. It can be a bit ‘good cop, bad cop’ with a TA and a teacher in the classroom. The argument against this would be that TAs rarely have to deal with behaviour issues as they work with groups of pupils and individuals mainly. Speaking from personal experience this is true and even when the teacher is not in the room the TA tends to have enough authority to control the class, although this can be harder when they are covering lessons. This is often the case in schools with TAs covering classes instead of a cover teacher which may not be the best solution although it is a practical one.
It could be argued that Teaching assistants are such a valuable resource because of their versatility. Most are really good all-rounders who can assist in pretty much any subject across the curriculum. They can help pupils when the teacher is not available to help them and makes sure all pupils understand what is being taught and employ appropriate differentiation across the classroom. I was conscious of this in my Teaching assistant work. I am a Math specialist and had to try and make sure that my knowledge in other subjects was up to that standard, particularly the core subjects where TAs are so valuable. It is something I am still working on even now and will do so throughout my career. The downside of this is that this process of well-rounding could make TAs not become as much of a subject specialist anymore. Sometimes it is required in a TA role for that person to be a specialist in a certain subject often Math or English. From my own experiences though I am more well-rounded now but just as much of a Math specialist as I ever was. It is the subject I enjoy supporting the most although English, Geography and PSHE are starting to become favourites.
This diversity expands to the TAs role in the school day and in supervising before school, break and lunchtime (many run very useful homework clubs in this time) and after school (again homework clubs, interventions, revision sessions and extra-curricular). Many TAs have a specific skill or asset they can contribute to the school. For instance, I am a qualified sports coach and know a lot about careers education as well. Pupils get to know the TAs well as they are a constant presence in the school day. You can have a real positive influence in this way, particularly with individual pupils. I feel I have inspired a lot of students in their studies, particularly in maths and sport and made a real difference and most other TAs will have made much more of a difference than myself which proves their value.
On top of all this, TAs tend to be a hugely likeable group of highly skilled people. All of the ones I have worked with are humble and very clever as most have degrees and some even have Masters which is incredible! They are very dedicated and put in the hours which in my opinion should be rewarded by the proposed ‘banked hours’ scheme where TAs get paid extra or gain other benefits as a reward for all the extra hours they work.
Hopefully they will be recognised for their true worth for the wonderful job they do. Many say that they are underpaid although of course they do less hours than teachers and rarely take home with them. However they do a lot of good extra work unpaid which they should be fairly rewarded for.
Whatever your opinion on them, the number of TAs is gradually and constantly increasing and they are coming to the fore even more in education now and in the future. It seems that teaching assistants are going to be even more a fixture in education in years to come. Hopefully I will get to play a part in this.