Unlocking the potential of TAs: developing SEND leads

How can TAs with experience in SEND widen their contribution across school? Natalie Packer shares how support staff can access professional development through the introduction of SEND leads

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...

TAs comprise a significant proportion of the school workforce. Across primary, secondary and special schools in the UK, 28% of people working in schools are TAs.

According to DfE statistics , the overall number of TAs has declined recently, undoubtedly reflecting the effects of cuts to school budgets. However, support staff continue to be an extremely valuable resource and, particularly in the light of reducing numbers, it is increasingly important that school leaders ensure maximum benefit and value from their TA colleagues.

Over the last few years, researchers from the institute of education at University College London have been running the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) project. Building on the findings of research, the project aims to improve the way TAs are deployed in schools to contribute to learning. Project lead Rob Webster notes in a recent blog that feedback from the schools involved shows that ‘releasing the latent potential of TAs is demonstrable, achievable and indisputably worthwhile.’

Many TAs have a wide range of skills, knowledge and understanding that can be tapped into and developed further. Effective school leaders ensure this happens as part of the school’s wider strategic improvement plan.

CPD and career progression

Providing opportunities for TAs to access professional development and progress in their careers is key to valuing their contribution and raising the profile of their role. In the teaching assistant toolkit, three questions are outlined for teachers and school leaders to consider.

  1. Does your school have a clear CPD model for TAs? 
  2. Are CPD priorities for TAs linked to the needs of the whole school? 
  3. Are CPD priorities for TAs linked to the conclusions from appraisal? 

Effective school leaders carefully consider how CPD is planned and linked to career development opportunities for all their staff, including TAs. The non-statutory professional standards for teaching assistants define characteristics that all TAs can demonstrate and can be used to inform the appraisal process and to identify training and development needs.

The role of the SEND lead

Many TAs spend the majority of their time working with pupils with special educational needs. This will often involve TAs working with individuals or small groups of pupils, adding value to the work of the class teacher. 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.  One way schools can develop this is through the introduction of SEND leads. This involves individual TAs being appointed as the lead on one of the four broad areas of need as outlined in the SEND Code of Practice. This results in the school having a team of ‘experts’, often led by the SENCO, in the following areas:

  • communication and interaction
  • cognition and learning
  • social, emotional and mental health
  • sensory and physical.

All SEND leads should have a general understanding of the SEND Code of Practice and of the school policies and procedures relating to their lead area

SEND lead key responsibilities 

Within this model, under the direction of the SENCO or another senior leader, each SEND lead has a key responsibility for supporting pupils with a particular area of need and for providing whole school support within the area. Depending on their level of confidence and expertise, this can include:

  • supporting the SENCO to develop whole school provision for their lead area
  • supporting implementation of individual pupil assessments within their lead area
  • 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 to use with pupils
  • 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.

The model of SEND lead TAs could be applied within an individual school setting, particularly where there is the capacity and need to develop a team approach. Alternatively, it is a model that some MATs are now developing, where SEND leads also provide outreach support across a number of schools or academies, as well as supporting within their own school.

Person specification for a SEND lead

Effective recruitment of SEND leads can be supported through the appraisal process, where leaders have a thorough understanding of the knowledge, skills and experience of their TAs, and can take into consideration their individual areas of interest. But what might be included within a person specification for such a role? 

All SEND leads should have a general understanding of the SEND Code of Practice and of the school policies and procedures relating to their lead area. They should also have a thorough understanding of some of the challenges faced by pupils with particular needs and be familiar with a range of strategies that can support pupils.

Excellent communication and interpersonal skills, along with a willingness to work alongside and support staff, parents and other professionals will, of course, be essential personal characteristics.

To highlight a particular example of the above, some of the requirements for a communication and interaction lead could include:

  • a minimum of 12 months recent experience of working with a range of pupils with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN)
  • knowledge of the characteristics of speech, language and communication impairments and the implications for learning and development
  • experience of using speech and language screeners to support initial identification
  • experience of using, and understanding the impact, of strategies to enhance and promote language and communication
  • knowledge of alternative communication methods used by pupils and how to support and promote the pupil’s ability to use these effectively
  • experience of delivering intervention programmes for pupils with SLCN and an understanding of how to evaluate their impact on learning.

It may be unreasonable to expect TAs to demonstrate a high level of expertise in all areas from the start, however, a commitment to improving their own practice and to engage in CPD around their lead area will be key to enable them to develop in the role.

Further resources 


Last Updated: 
24 Jan 2020