Rethinking your teaching assistant deployment model

Are you using your teaching assistants effectively? Natalie Packer offers some ideas to make the most of this vital role

Author details

Natalie Packer is an independent education consultant, specialising in school improvement, SEN and outstanding teaching. She delivers a wide range of professional development packages for primary and secondary schools and supports initial teacher...

Teaching assistants (TAs) comprise around a quarter of the state-funded school workforce in the UK. Although the total number of TAs has declined recently, reflecting the effects of cuts to school budgets, support staff continue to be an extremely important resource within our schools.

Research findings on TA effectiveness

Since 2009, researchers from the Institute of Education (IOE) at the University College London have undertaken research into the effective deployment of teaching assistants.

The conclusions of the research have been interesting, but not always so encouraging. One common finding notes that the pupils who had the most support from a TA made the least amount of progress.

This was often because:

  1. the pupils were not getting as much quality input from the teacher


  1. pupils were becoming overdependent on adult support (the ‘Velcro effect’).

Particularly in the light of the reducing numbers of TAs, the research highlights the importance of school leaders ensuring they get maximum benefit and value from their TA colleagues by considering the most effective ways to deploy them as part of the school’s wider strategic improvement plan.

Reflecting on current models of deployment

According to research carried out for the DfE by ASK in 2019, there are three main ways in which TAs are primarily deployed:

  1. Whole-class TAs (a model likely to be used within primary schools).
  2. In-class targeted TAs, mainly to support pupils with SEND.
  3. Withdrawal intervention delivery.   

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to the most effective way to deploy TAs. What will be appropriate within an individual school will partly depend on what leaders want the role, purpose and contribution of TAs to look like.

Contextual factors such as type and size of school, number of TAs employed and, most importantly, pupil need, will also be important.

Consider what you can do to create a positive culture and to what extent TAs are valued within the school

In order to reflect on the situation within the context of their own school, leaders can ask themselves the following questions:

  • Is the model of TA deployment we use in our school the most effective for us? How do we know?
  • What are the important underlying factors that make this model work (or not) in our school?
  • Are there other models that could work more effectively?

If you want to carry out a more detailed review of TAs, the Whole School SEND (WSS) ‘Teaching Assistant Deployment Review Guide’ can be freely downloaded and used as a tool for self-assessment. 

Establishing the principles of effective deployment

Based on the findings of the research from the IOE, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) publication ‘Making best use of teaching assistants’ provides guidance for school leaders on effective TA deployment.

It provides a number of recommendations for leaders to consider when evaluating their use of support staff, including the following:

  • Don’t use TAs as an informal teaching resource for low-attaining pupils.
  • Use TAs to add value to what teachers do, not replace them.
  • Use TAs to help pupils develop independent learning skills.
  • Ensure TAs are fully prepared for their role in the classroom.
  • Use TAs to deliver high-quality, evidence-based, structured interventions.

The recommendations should be used as a starting point when reviewing models of deployment. Also consider what you can do to create a positive culture and to what extent TAs are valued within the school by asking questions such as these:

  • Does the role of TAs need clarifying? Do job descriptions need changing?  
  • Are TAs prepared for their role? Is there an induction process in place?
  • Is there an appraisal process that can help improve their profile and professionalism?  
  • Are there opportunities for teachers and TAs to communicate, to share expectations, planning and feedback?  
  • Do TAs have a teaching and learning identity? Have they had CPD on key elements of pedagogy, such as questioning, modeling and scaffolding, to enable them to more effectively support pupil progress?   

Considering different approaches to deployment

1. Review TA allocation across the school

Historically, in many primary schools, TA allocation has been based on a model of sharing adult support amongst classes or year groups.

Alternative models can be used where TAs are targeted to particular classes or groups, for example in classes where there are more pupils with complex needs, or to focus on Year 6 to support with transition.

Similarly, in secondary schools, additional support could be targeted at Year 7, where early input could be beneficial, or Year 11, in order to provide extra input for pupils prior to exams.

Set up the classroom so that adults rotate between groups and the TA is used as a more fluid resource

Within secondary schools, it is useful to consider the advantages and disadvantages of TAs being allocated either to subject-specific departments or to the SEND department.

Where TAs are department based, they will develop subject-specific knowledge and a deeper understanding of the curriculum.

Where they are SEND based, they develop a better understanding of individual pupils and their areas of needs.

Schools might find it beneficial to have a combination of the two models, with some TAs being allocated to the core subjects of English, maths and science and others remaining within the SEND department. 

2. Change deployment within the classroom

It is crucial that schools move away from the ‘Velcro’ model of deployment, where a TA sticks to working with one pupil, and instead change to the more inclusive approach of working with small groups of pupils and promoting independence.

Where a pupil has TA support funded through an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP), the TA can work with the pupil to start an activity before moving away to work with others, returning to their focus pupil to check in, help with any problems and refocus as needed.

Leaders need to ensure there is planning for TAs to work with different groups of pupils so that teachers spend more time directly teaching and taking responsibility for the pupils with SEND in their classrooms.

This can be achieved by setting up the classroom so that adults rotate between groups and the TA is used as a more fluid resource across the prior attainment range.

In their recently published book, Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants in Primary Schools, Rob Webster and colleagues refer to the idea of the ‘teaching triage’.

In this model, the TA is deployed in a ‘triaging’ capacity by bringing to the teacher’s attention particular individuals who are having difficulty with the task while the teacher spends time with another group. Once alerted, the teacher can move to provide targeted support to the pupil who is struggling whilst the TA continues to roam the room.

3. Take a strategic view of interventions

Adopting well-structured programmes with reliable evidence of effectiveness can form a key part of high-quality provision for pupils with additional needs. Most schools will use TAs to deliver such interventions, but too often the TAs are left to select, prepare and implement interventions with little direction or guidance.

During the lockdown, TAs were often referred to as the ‘unsung heroes of the pandemic’

Leaders need to ensure that the deployment of staff to deliver interventions is strategically planned:

  • Consider if it would be more effective for other staff to deliver certain interventions; for example subject-specialist staff delivering literacy or maths interventions or members of the pastoral team delivering social and emotional needs interventions.
  • Make use of individual TA skills – for example, if one TA is particularly knowledgeable about phonics, timetable them to delivery phonics interventions across the school.
  • Provide time for teachers and TAs to discuss, plan and prepare interventions together. Ensure there are processes in place for TAs to feed back to teachers following intervention delivery.
  • Consider how to support pupils to make connections between the learning in interventions and what happens in the classroom. Some schools are now timetabling TAs to deliver 6-to-12-week interventions, followed by a few additional weeks where the TA works with the same pupils back in the classroom to support the transfer of knowledge and skills.

The IOE research shows that pupils only make progress as a result of interventions when TAs have been properly trained to deliver the programme. CPD for TAs is therefore essential, although developing intervention specialists through the ‘expert lead’ role can also be effective.

4. Develop the role of the expert lead

For TAs who are particularly experienced, or have a specific interest in this field, it may be appropriate to widen their contribution across the school. 

Involve TAs in the ‘assess, plan, do, review’ process

One way schools can develop this is through the introduction of SEND leads, where TAs are appointed as the lead on a particular area of need, as outlined in the SEND Code of Practice.

As a result, the school has a team of ‘experts’ who can provide whole-school support within their area, for example by:  

  • supporting implementation of individual pupil assessments 
  • providing direct support for a caseload of pupils with particular needs
  • delivering and reviewing interventions focusing on their lead area
  • providing guidance and support to other staff on strategies 
  • sourcing or developing resources for their lead area
  • working in collaboration with parents and other external professionals who support pupils with particular needs, for example speech and language therapists, physiotherapists or specialist teachers
  • undertaking action research on their lead area and sharing good practice across the school.

5. Learn from lockdown

During the lockdown, TAs were often referred to as the ‘unsung heroes of the pandemic’ as they played an important role in ensuring the welfare of children learning from home and maintaining a safe and purposeful learning environment.

TAs undertook a range of additional tasks, such as preparing hard-copy learning packs, liaising with families, participating in online lessons and offering support to pupils having difficulties with home learning. Many TAs acted as a key link between school and families, providing regular check-ins or being available to offer wellbeing support.

As a result, positive relationships have developed between many TAs, pupils and their families. Here are some ways schools could provide opportunities for continuing to build these relationships post-pandemic:

  • Establish or continue the ‘key worker’ role where TAs have a caseload of pupils with whom they are the main point of contact, have regular check-ins or provide emotional support and guidance when needed.
  • Involve TAs in the ‘assess, plan, do, review’ process and ask them to gather feedback from pupils or parents for support plan reviews.
  • Consider how TAs can be deployed to provide direct support for the increasing number of pupils with social, emotional and mental health needs, for example by delivering SEMH interventions or mentoring programmes.

Further research and guidance

MITA’s website provides a comprehensive resource for research and guidance on the deployment and impact of TAs, which includes a summary of the IOE studies and free downloadable tools and resources linked to the EEF’s ‘Making best use of teaching assistants’ guidance.


Last Updated: 
14 Oct 2021