Teaching assistants are winning praise but losing pay

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Schools are beginning to see the benefits of their teaching assistant workforce just as the TAs themselves are facing major cuts to their terms and conditions and, in many cases, pay. Charlotte Goddard reports

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Teaching assistants in Durham have been given a pay cut of up to 23 per cent

Nurseries in Derby have been forced to close their doors as teaching assistants (TAs) recently took part in their eighth strike since June, with more industrial action planned in the run-up to Christmas. The strikers are protesting swingeing pay cuts of up to 25 per cent after the local authority reduced their weekly hours and changed their pay to term-time only, rather than the 52-week contracts enjoyed by their teacher colleagues.

‘Teaching assistants who were earning around £16,000 a year are now earning about £11,000,’ says Adrian Morgan, regional organiser at union Unison. Joining Derby teaching assistants on the picket line will be colleagues from Durham.

Both Unison and ATL unions have balloted their TA members working in Durham, with an overwhelming majority voting for strike action over the council’s plans to cut their pay by up to 23 per cent.

The TAs rejected the council’s proposal to give them two years’ compensation for the loss of salary from April 2017 if they agreed to move to term-time-only contracts. The council has now sent dismissal notices to all its TAs and plans to re-employ them on new terms and conditions from 1 January (see News).

ONE IN THREE

In schools and nurseries across the country, around 250,000 teaching assistants (the exact number is probably much higher as many work part-time) are providing support to teachers, making up one in three of the workforce in primary schools. Despite their numbers and the £5bn a year that is spent on employing them, there is relatively little research into their efficacy. Findings to date have produced mixed results, but many believe TAs have proved themselves an invaluable asset within school teams.

‘Teaching assistants do incredible work, everything from integrating Syrian refugees to working with kids with autism and getting disadvantaged kids to school,’ says Jon Richards, Unison’s head of education.

‘They work well in excess of their stated hours,’ agrees Mr Morgan. ‘This can include preparation for lessons, creating display boards, taking part in residential trips, parents evenings, visiting children at home, and running clubs and activities after school.’

Infant and nursery schools are particularly dependent on the support given by teaching assistants. ‘Since the pay review, nurseries and infant schools have been the most significantly affected by the strike action; they simply cannot cope without the teaching assistants,’ says Sue Bonfer, teaching assistant in the nursery class of a Derby infant school. ‘If a school does stay open, invariably the nursery will close, because of the ratios and the role the TA plays.’

Teachers’ pay is subject to national terms and conditions, but teaching assistant salaries are set by cash-strapped local authorities. Reviews of the role have been beneficial in some areas, where TAs have received pay rises, but in many other places they have seen their pay and hours cut, moving onto term-time only contracts.

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‘On balance, pay is now a lot worse in most of the country than it was 15 years ago,’ says Peter Morris, national officer for support staff at union ATL.

Terms and conditions also vary across the country, with local authorities using different approaches to calculate benefits such as annual leave and maternity pay. The morale of TAs tends to depend on what deal has been done for them in their area. ‘But they all think it is unfair that they are treated differently from teachers; there is clearly something wrong with that structure,’ says Mr Richards.

CHANGING ROLE

The role of teaching assistant was introduced in 2003, to take the pressure off teachers by reducing their workload, but many TAs feel they no longer have support from central Government. ‘It is a real move away from the situation where support staff were seen as part of the team. The Government has just thrust them aside and said it is up to schools how they deal with them,’ says Mr Richards.

The Government had been set to publish a set of professional standards for teaching assistants before the last general election, but failed to do so. A group of organisations including Unison and NAHT published their standards instead. Unison and the National Education Trust have also issued a career framework for teaching assistants, with five different levels (see box, overleaf). ‘It describes the sort of qualifications you might want TAs to have at different levels,’ says Mr Richards. ‘Schools really like it; it gives a structure and an understanding of how TAs work.’

Guidance is necessary, because the role of teaching assistant has altered radically. ‘Teaching assistants used to be referred to as “paint pot washers”, but now the role has expanded and expectations are higher,’ says Mr Morris. ‘A lot of schools and employers are looking for NVQ qualifications in a way they were not five years ago. Now teaching assistants are working one to one with children with additional needs, or who have English as a foreign language.’

Some use the role as a potential launchpad to a teaching career, but research from the National Foundation for Educational Research found a greater proportion of teachers have moved to become a TA than the other way around.

Despite the increasing number of highly-qualified TAs – some even have doctorates – it is still a mixed workforce, especially with those who have been in their role for nearly 15 years. ‘It’s a case where all sorts of people all over the place are doing different things and paid different amounts,’ says Mr Richards.

The workforce is, however, predominantly female. ‘The workforce here in Derby is 95 per cent women,’ says Mr Morgan. ‘Some are mothers or grandmothers who have children or grandchildren in the schools. The majority started as volunteers reading to children in the classroom.’

WORKING RELATIONSHIPS

The relationship between teachers and teaching assistants has also changed. ‘Nine years ago there was still hostility in some quarters,’ says Mr Morris. ‘It was feared that teaching assistants would encroach beyond their standard job description. Some of those fears have been proven right, and even ordinary TAs are delivering lessons on a weekly basis, which is not something we would support. But that hostility has gone for the most part, and teachers do regard teaching assistants as indispensable.’

Teachers in Derby are supporting their striking TA colleagues by refusing to cover for them. ‘Head teachers are having to cover, and are also asking parents to basically come in to babysit,’ says Mr Morgan.

Teachers do still have some concerns, particularly supply teachers. ‘Teachers and TAs are different jobs, and teachers don’t want to see their professional role diluted,’ says Mr Morris. ‘If the TA is covering a lesson, then that is work that has been taken away from a supply teacher.’

However, Unison’s Mr Richards says: ‘There is no reason why teaching assistants can’t take classes. They are not here to be long-term teachers, but there is a balance to be struck.’ If TAs do have a direct teaching role, it is important to ensure they supplement rather than replace the teacher, with teachers using TAs more strategically to enable themselves to work more often with lower-attaining pupils.’

NEGATIVE AND POSITIVE

It is ironic that teaching assistants’ pay and conditions have taken such a blow at a time when schools and nurseries are just beginning to learn how to make the best use out of them. A major piece of research called The Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) Project, carried out by the Institute of Education between 2003 and 2009, found that teaching assistants actually had a negative impact on children’s outcomes.

‘We found teaching assistants spent most of their time supporting the kids who struggle the most, and these kids were worse off because of their support,’ says Rob Webster, one of the researchers behind the study. ‘Any child receiving support from a teaching assistant did less well, and in fact the more support they had, the less well they did. The kids who struggled most saw their progress set back by months.’

‘After the research was published, there was a flurry of “TAs are no good” headlines, and negative stuff in the press,’ says Mr Richards. ‘But it became clear that it is all about deployment: those deployed well and trained well have a good impact; those asked to do childcare for difficult children, less so.’

Schools and nurseries are now beginning to understand how to deploy their teaching assistants for best results, with the support of a number of initiatives. The Education Endowment Foundation, for example, has funded evaluations of six different teaching assistant-led interventions, with 2,100 children in 148 schools. It found that far from having a negative effect, when teaching assistants were properly deployed and trained, the programmes resulted in an additional two to four months’ progress for pupils.

The Nuffield Early Language Intervention, for example, saw teaching assistants given three days of training and detailed lesson plans so they could lead short, structured sessions around everyday topics such as ‘time’ and ‘what we wear’, with small groups of nursery and Reception pupils. The evaluation found a 30-week programme improved the vocabulary, grammar and listening skills of four- and five-year-olds by as much as four months. ‘This is useful evidence that tends to get lost in the shadow of the DISS report,’ says Mr Webster.

The EEF is also investing £5 million to support hundreds of schools in South and West Yorkshire to maximise the use of teaching assistants. School leaders are taking part in a series of workshops and action activities to help them change the way teaching assistants are deployed, while the teaching assistants are able to access free or heavily subsidised training to deliver high-quality maths and literacy interventions.

School leaders, SENCOs, teachers and teaching assistants are also able to access training and support from a coalition led by Mr Webster. Maximising TAs (see panel, right) offers several courses under the banners Maximising the Impact of TAs (MITA) and Maximising the Practice of TAs (MPTA). Around 100 schools have accessed support, says Mr Webster. After the course, schools are encouraged to make changes such as giving TAs the opportunity to receive briefings from the class teacher before the lesson starts, and training TAs in the best ways to interact with the children they work with. ‘Certainly things are changing,’ says Mr Webster. ‘I have been visiting schools where people are doing some really good stuff. They say it is having an impact, or if it is not yet having an impact they can see it probably will in eight months’ time.

‘We constantly ask for more resources in education,’ he adds ‘With this issue, the resources – the teaching assistants – are already in the system. This is about using resources better, not spending lots more money.’

sue-bonferCASE STUDY: SUE BONFER, DERBY

Sue Bonfer has worked as a teaching assistant since 2003. ‘I started out by helping out in a nursery while my youngest was nursery age, and when a job came up as a teaching assistant I went for it,’ she says. ‘The nursery paid for me to do my NVQ Level 3, which wouldn’t happen now.’

When the maintained nursery school Ms Bonfer was working in closed, she got a job as one of two teaching assistants in the nursery class of an infant school. ‘We have 60 children in the unit, 30 in the morning and 30 in the afternoon, and we split the workload between the two TAs and the teacher, taking two sets of ten children each in our key worker groups,’ she says. ‘While the teacher is ultimately responsible for what we are doing every week, I have the responsibility for planning learning sessions, group times and so on. I feel we are doing the same job as the teacher but the TAs are paid much less.’

Eight to ten hours a week, outside the classroom, are spent on paperwork. ‘Even when we had 52-week contracts, like teachers, we felt we were working hard for the money, but we didn’t mind doing so,’ says Ms Bonfer. ‘But now those contracts have been reduced to term-time only, my salary has been reduced from £19,742 to £17,300 for the same work. My school has offered us 37-hour-a-week contracts rather than the 32.5-hour standard, on a temporary basis. The nursery simply can’t operate if the teaching assistants walk in and out at the same time as the children.’

Ms Bonfer says her school is particularly supportive. ‘I have full respect for the head teacher; she recognises the commitment and work involved in being a nursery TA,’ she says. ‘She gave all the TAs a whole morning a week of Planning, Preparation and Assessment time, which is something quite unprecedented, to enable us to do a lot of our paperwork. Even so, we still had work to do at home to make sure everything was on track.’

Ms Bonfer has seen changes to the role since she started working. ‘In the past, it was about listening to children read, maybe washing paint pots as the stereotypical view has it, but now you need an in-depth knowledge. For my interview, I had to do a lesson observation, observed by senior leadership,’ she says.

‘There has been a huge commitment to TAs’ professional development, which is really important, but unfortunately with the erosion of terms and conditions, and salaries, it really detracts from that professionalism,’ she adds. ‘It is a shame to take away that professional commitment and treat us like contract workers.’

FACTS AND FIGURES

Numbers

There are more teaching assistants than teachers in primary schools

There are 250,000 TAs in English schools

The number of TAs has trebled since 2000

Around £5bn is spent on employing TAs

TAs represent the largest spend of pupil premium money

Source: EEF

Workload

55 per cent of school support staff say their workload is now unmanageable and 93 per cent say their workload has increased over the past two years

63 per cent of school support staff have considered leaving education because of the workload

Source: ATL

Training

61 per cent of school support staff have GCSEs

42 per cent have NVQ Level 3

25 per cent have A-levels

21 per cent have NVQ Level 2

17 per cent have a diploma of higher education

15 per cent have an undergraduate degree

Source: Unison

MORE INFORMATION

Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants by Jonathan Sharples, Rob Webster and Peter Blatchford – research overview with recommendations on TA deployment, http://maximisingtas.co.uk/projects/making-best-use-of-tas.php

Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants by R Webster, A Russell and P Blatchford, http://maximisingtas.co.uk/our-books.php

Professional Standards for Teaching Assistants: Advice for Headteachers, Teachers, Teaching Assistants, Governing Boards and Employers– non-statutory standards aiming to define TAs’ role and maximise their educational value. Published by a group of organisations including Unison, NAHT and the National Education Trust, http://maximisingtas.co.uk/assets/content/ta-standards-final-june2016-1.pdf

Career Framework and Continuing Professional Development for Teaching Assistants by National Education Trust and Unison. Profiles five levels of TA and suggests qualifications and CPD for each level, http://bit.ly/2ee1ORU

The Deployment and Impact of Support Staff Project by P Blatchford, P Bassett, P Brown, C Martin, A Russell and R Webster (IoE, University of London), http://bit.ly/1T833TF

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