The deployment of TAs: a case study
Name: The Weatheralls Primary School
Location: Soham, Cambridgeshire
Number of pupils on roll: 620
Headteacher: Chrissy Barclay
Type of school: Academy
Pupil premium: Above average
SEN: Above average
It seems that at nearly every SLT meeting, briefing or course I attend, the words ‘maximising teaching assistants (TA)’ crop up again and again. With overstretched budgets and challenges in retention and recruitment, schools are being forced to think much more strategically about how they can invest in existing staff in order to meet demanding progress and attainment targets.
At The Weatheralls, we have a strong workforce of around 36 TAs to support the needs of our 620 pupils and, in line with recent research on added value, we have had to think very carefully about the how our TAs are deployed and the overall effectiveness of this provision. This has meant having some difficult, but honest and shared conversations with all members of staff.
Where did we start?
We decided to find out what our teachers and TAs understood about the role of support staff. We suspected a rather traditional and entrenched mindset, with a large proportion of staff using TAs to prepare resources or work with the lower attainers as standard practice. We knew things had to change, but we also knew we had to listen, not dictate, if we were to identify barriers to effective TA support.
Equipped with flipchart paper and pens, we organised meetings with TAs and asked a few key questions about their understanding of the role. We then drew everyone’s attention to the Education Endowment Fund (EEF)’s guidance report, 'Making the best use of teaching assistants' and invited some comment. It didn’t take long for the rumblings to start!
These sessions made clear that many of our TAs believed that their role was to assist the teacher and ensure pupils completed their work, ‘supporting’ them by any means necessary. For some, this often meant giving pupils the answers or doing the work for them. They see their responsibilities as being to:
- help identified pupils become independent learners
- close gaps in learning and progress
- through teacher guidance, drive sustained progress and attainment.
Many TAs were fixated on children with SEN, behaviour management, admin, and task-orientated support.
As it turned out, we found that teachers thought the same. Clearly there was some work to do.
The three P’s
We immediately identified three main areas of focus and put together a short- and long-term plan, with a clear emphasis on developing a teaching and learning mindset for support staff, raising their professional status and shifting fixed pre-conceptions around their role.
To improve our practice, we realised that we needed to:
- improve the working culture throughout the school
- align all support staff with the school’s vision and values
- develop positive relationships between staff and pupils
- ensure a visible line of accountability between staff
- raise the profile of the role by involving support staff in planning, assessment and marking.
To improve outcomes for pupils, we needed to:
- use support staff effectively during lesson times
- map out our provision carefully so as to match expertise with need
- foster independence in pupils (particularly those with SEND)
- improve pre- and post-lesson communication in order to better identify gaps
- use support staff effectively during lessons to improve outcomes for individuals.
To improve our teaching, we needed to:
- invest in quality CPD that matches our strategic direction for school improvement
- reinforce our focus on high quality teaching and learning through effective line management
- model our expectations for pedagogy through phase leaders
- develop the questioning skills of teachers and support staff
- improve our reflective practice.
We knew that the ‘old school’ culture was our greatest barrier to improvement, with many long-serving TAs comfortable with an outdated approach to their role. Attempting to change things too quickly would leave many staff feeling anxious, vulnerable and defensive at a time when we needed everybody on side if we were going to change outcomes for our pupils.
With this in mind, we decided there had to be a change in climate before there could be a change in culture. We wanted our support staff to see this as something positive - a chance to collaborate - so we started by tidying up our TA job descriptions. First of all, we scrapped ‘teaching assistant’ in favour of ‘learning support assistant (LSA)’, appointing a lead LSA to oversee the appraisal process – with the TA standards document as the basis for targets.
Practice: teacher and LSA relationship
During the initial meetings, it became clear that direction and communication were high on our staff’s agenda. LSAs were unsure how to support pupils as they didn’t know what the learning outcomes were and how they could meet them. They also felt unclear on which practical teaching strategies they should use in certain lessons, highlighting gaps in their knowledge of the curriculum and core subject weaknesses.
Through observations, we noticed that many LSAs were sitting at the back of the classroom during a teacher’s input, hovering around the same groups of children or whipping groups outside to work. This was what they had ‘always done’, without being appropriately challenged by teachers who had realised this model was ineffective.
Teachers did not think there was enough time in the school day to discuss their expectations with LSAs, and felt uncomfortable talking to support staff during breaks or holding them at the end of the day. Many newly-qualified teachers (NQT) did not feel confident in challenging more experienced LSAs who were not taking initiative and being proactive during lessons. There was also confusion in line management, with too many senior members of staff involved in the appraisal process.
Teachers did not think there was enough time in the school day to discuss their expectations with LSAs
As teachers have overall responsibility for the progress of their pupils, we improved the line of accountability by using teachers as direct line managers for the LSAs in their class. We drew on the phase leaders to model and mentor less experienced teachers, and ensured planning was used to highlight who the LSA would be working with, what they would be doing and when this would take place. We made sure everyone understood that this shift would involve using collaboration, communication and reciprocal support to drive improvement, and that teachers should take ownership of this.
Giving time for LSAs to communicate and prepare was high on the priority list. We reviewed our LSA contracts and, where possible, extended the working day from 9:00am – 3:00pm to 8.30am – 3.15pm. This would allow for a meaningful breakdown of the day, with discussions around anticipated outcomes and strategies to use, as well as a reflective conversation at the end.
Typically, this involves looking back at the work of individual pupils and joint input on marking and planning for the following day. It provides opportunities for meaningful conversations about learning and gives teachers a space to coordinate support effectively. We also reviewed the number of unnecessary breaks LSAs were taking and reset our expectations. Staff welcomed our decision to ensure fairness and consistency throughout.
Pupils: strategic provision mapping
During our school-wide evaluation, we realised that the inclusion of an extra desk in every classroom and allocation of rooms to specific LSAs was the unnecessary legacy of an outdated model. It only served to suggest that LSAs needed a room and desk for their administrative tasks; filling in meaningless spreadsheets with useless intervention data, or other clerical duties which took them away from the pupils. We decided to remove the desks, match rooms to needs rather than people and clarify the LSA role.
This required the teacher to identify:
- which pupils are supported, with the expectation that this would change depending on teacher/LSA assessment identified at the beginning or end of the day
- the context in which they are supported (one to one, in groups, in class, away from class) and the duration of the support
- the nature of LSAs’ interaction with pupils, and the extent to which an understanding is sought as opposed to completing tasks.
It was also important to promote high expectations, particularly for lower attaining pupils. Every member of staff was trained to raise expectations and the attention was brought back to high quality teaching. Through a collective conversation and working through individual case studies, all staff came to realise that classrooms should be organised to give lower attaining pupils more time with their teacher, not less.
We carried out an audit of skills (no mean feat in a school of our size), which helped us to identify and match expertise to areas of need. For instance, we had not realised that so many teachers were Elkan trained, or had undertaken specific ASD training. Knowing our baseline enabled us to deploy staff much more effectively, pairing up staff (including teachers) and using in-house expertise to upskill our team. Celebrating our staff strengths contributed to the feelings of value and pride that we so desperately needed in this time of change.
Pedagogy: a teaching and learning identity
Once LSAs better understood their role, we could begin embedding a teaching and learning identity. We encouraged teachers to share evidence-based practices with LSAs. Where we had identified strong joint practice, we scheduled observations for teachers and LSAs – giving them time to debrief afterwards and reflect on their successes. We also steadily introduced lesson study into our appraisal process for teachers, keeping LSAs very much part of this process: they will often join teachers to plan and observe.
Over time, LSAs became more confident in giving feedback to less experienced teachers. We are now seeing pockets of joint ownership where previously there had been a divide.
We developed some early ‘quick wins’ to change how the LSA works in the classroom. Teachers and LSAs are encouraged to incorporate the following into their daily practice.
- Flip it: change who the LSA usually works with and ensure that pupils who need the most support initially work with the teacher.
- Scribe it: make key notes to use with children who have speech and language gaps or poor working memory.
- Take in the learning: use teacher input (teacher talk) to cover any gaps in subject knowledge or new approaches, such as Maths mastery.
- Support groups during input: sit with previously identified pupils and direct their focus to ensure they are on task during carpet time.
- Question: don’t give children the answers or pre-empt what they’re thinking, but scaffold through effective questioning instead.
- Assess: help the teaching to assess learning outcomes. Provide extra challenge/support in lesson time and identify gaps.
- Direct feedback: move children on in the lesson through effective feedback.
- Early intervention: use formative assessment to provide early intervention in the same day to close gaps.
- Pre-learning: through joint planning, pre-empt misconceptions or barriers and hold short, well-paced pre-learning sessions with groups or individuals.
Following the implementation of these reforms, we continue to hold fortnightly meetings with LSAs, all keeping a clear agenda and ‘PPP’ focus in mind. A SLT member is present at each meeting to give that extra gravitas. We now have a clear and refined appraisal process with a clear line of accountability, which has helped upskill teachers and improve teacher-LSA relationships through clear direction and management.
Above all, we always celebrate successes and provide opportunities for sharing practice within our school and partnership schools. We continue to promote the ethos of collaboration and collective responsibility to improve outcomes for our pupils. Long though the journey has been, we are now seeing the fruits of our efforts: greater independence and more learning successes among our pupils.