Effective use of teaching assistants in the classroom

Dr Jonathan Sharples of the Education Endowment Foundation outlines how recommendations from a 2015 report can help schools maximise the impact of TAs in the classroom

Author details

Jonathan Sharples is a senior researcher at the Education Endowment Foundation, seconded from the Institute for Effective Education, University of York, where he is exploring schools’ use of research evidence. Jonathan works with schools and...

Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants was published in March 2015 as guidance from the EEF to help schools make the best use of their teaching assistants. The report outlines seven recommendations.

In this Q&A Dr Jonathan Sharples answers our questions on the effective deployment of TAs. 

The EEF report provides seven key recommendations for the best use of teaching assistants. If used effectively, what impact can TAs have in the classroom?

Dr Jonathan Sharples, Education Endowment Foundation

The recommendations we have provided fall into two separate categories.

  1. The role of TAs in delivering structured interventions.
  2. The more general deployment of TAs in the classroom.

With regards to structured interventions, these often take place in schools on a one-to-one basis or in small groups. Evidence from a number of robust evaluations, including our own, suggests that when these interventions are well structured and supported, they can have a significant positive impact, equivalent to 3-4 months additional progress.

The problem is that in many schools, one-to-one and small group work is often more informal and not well supported or structured. Research suggests that interactions of this type can impact negatively on pupil progress. This in turn points towards a relatively simple conclusion - interventions for interventions sake are rarely effective.

However, with proper TA training, planned structure and clear links to the wider curriculum, interventions can have a strong positive impact on the progress of pupils.

The other thing to bear in mind is around the deployment of support staff in everyday classroom contexts. What we are recommending here is to avoid situations where TAs are assigned to a certain pupil or groups of pupils for long periods.

Research has shown this can limit interactions between the teacher and pupils, resulting in periods where these pupils (often low-attaining or SEN pupils) miss out on the high-quality teaching, provided by fully trained classroom teachers.

Instead, we would recommend that TAs are used to supplement high-quality teaching from the teacher and work a wide range of pupils.

Recommendation 4 states that schools should 'ensure that TAs are fully prepared for their role in the classroom'. How can schools best achieve this?

Effective day-to-day preparation is essential. This comes down to finding ways to fully brief teaching assistants ahead of the lessons they will be supporting. All too often there are limited interactions between teachers and teaching assistants, meaning that the TA enters the lesson without a full understanding of teaching methods, strategies or planned outcomes for the lesson.

For TAs to be fully prepared for their role, schools need to find creative ways for teachers and TAs to liaise outside of the classroom.

This poses obvious challenges, as teachers and TAs are already time pressured, so building in facilitated preparation time pre-lessons can be difficult. The report makes a number of suggestions on how schools might achieve this, including adjusting TAs’ working hours (start early, finish early), using assembly time and having TAs join teachers for (part of) planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time.

The recent EEF guidance suggests the need for careful planning when rethinking the use of TAs. What steps should be taken by schools to alter their TA deployment strategy?

As the deployment of staff is a school leadership issue it is important they take overall responsibility for any changes to TAs' roles and practices.

In the report we also outline a school improvement process that schools have successfully used to review and reframe their use of TAs.

Step 1: Thoroughly review current practice to understand how you are currently meeting the needs of those pupils who require additional support. An honest self-appraisal is a crucial step to recognising where change is necessary.

Step 2: Define the role, purpose and contribution of teaching assistants across your school.

Step 3: Develop a whole-school approach to improvements. Introduce change gradually, testing ideas and ensuring staff across the school are supporting the new system and that they themselves are also supported.

Step 4: Once this whole-school approach involving all staff is in place, you can begin to provide your teaching assistants with the appropriate training and support. Providing this training before you have got the context right, for their work is unlikely to have maximum effect. But once a well thought out improvement plan is in place this training is an essential step towards pupil progress.


Last Updated: 
15 May 2017