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Adults play an important role in extending and enhancing childrens learning. Research has shown that adult involvement, from both parents and teachers, is a key factor in improving children’s academic attainment as well as their behaviour towards learning (Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003). The parents are the prime educators for a child until they reach the early years setting where teachers then begin to take on the main role of teaching. It is clear from research that both teachers and parents have important roles to play in the education of a child (Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003 and Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2008).
Although research has shown that teachers and parents have an impact on children’s education what is less clear is the impact that other classroom based staff and in particular teaching assistants have on their learning. Since 1997 the number of teaching assistants present in classrooms in the UK has trebled (Blatchford et al, 2012) and the number of teaching assistants has been steadily rising since the introduction of the SEN Code of Practice in 1994 which required additional support staff to assist with SEN children accessing mainstream schools (Blatchford et al, 2011). In 1998 the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) was introduced and a year later the National Numeracy Strategy (NNS) was launched. These drives involved significant input from teaching assistants and led to an increase in their responsibilities. Reports from Ofsted indicate that ‘teaching assistants continue to play an important and effective role in the daily mathematics lessons and the literacy hour’ (Ofsted, 2003, pg.4). This, therefore, highlights their value and effectiveness in delivering learning in schools. The introduction of the National Workforce Agreement (NWA), raising standards and tackling teacher workload, (Department for Education and Skills, 2003a) also aimed to raise standards and tackle the workload of teachers by increasing the number of teaching assistants in schools.
This rapid increase in teaching assistant numbers in schools has been a cause of concern and research into the impact of teaching assistants on children’s learning has begun to become more evident. Most recently, the findings of the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project has raised concerns about the deployment of teaching assistants, their impact on children’s learning and has highlighted the need for further research (Blatchford et al, 2009a). The main assumption was that the increase in teaching assistant numbers would be beneficial to maximising pupil learning (Brown & Harris, 2010 & Blatchford et al, 2007). However, there is currently little systematic evidence available to confirm whether teaching assistants have a positive impact on pupil outcomes (Blatchford et al, 2011 and Alborz et al, 2009 and Rubie-Davies et al, 2010).
The increasing and changing role of teaching assistants in classrooms is of importance as they have both a direct and indirect impact on children’s learning. This essay will focus on the role of teaching assistants and their impact on pupil learning. Firstly, this essay will define and review the role of the teaching assistant and what is meant by effective learning. It will then go on to critically review the current research on the impact of teaching assistants on individuals, the class as a whole and whether they are maximising or holding back pupil learning and progress.
The Role of the Teaching Assistant
It is apparent that there is confusion as to what the role of the teaching assistant is and there is still a lack of clarity and consensus as to how they should be utilised in schools (Blatchford et al, 2012 and Butt & Lance, 2009). Teaching assistants have been prompted to take on more teaching roles in recent years and the publication of the ‘Excellence and Enjoyment’ document in 2003 has encouraged the use of teaching assistants in teaching whole classes, which has added to the confusion of the role (Department for Education and Skills, 2003b). The Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) guide suggests that teaching assistants have four areas of work in supporting the school, the curriculum, the teacher and the pupil (DfEE, 2000). In 2001 the Secretary of State also suggested that the work of teaching assistants should include supervising classes, and working with small groups (HMI, 2002). In school X the definition of the role of the teaching assistant was defined as being ‘to work alongside teachers in the classroom and help pupils with their learning on an individual or group basis’ (School X Role of the Teaching Assistant). The role of the teaching assistant has clearly moved from acting as a classroom ‘helper’ to a direct role in supporting teaching and learning in the classroom (Vincett et al, 2005 & Groom, 2006). The lack of coordination and training for teaching assistants was transformed in the DfES (2004) document which announced plans for vocational qualifications and introduced training for the higher level teaching assistant (HLTA)(Vincett et al, 2005). The HLTA responsibilities in school X were ‘to plan and deliver learning activities under the direction of a teacher and assess, record and report on pupils progress (School X Role of the Higher Level Teaching Assistant). The range of responsibilities and the lack of clarity of what is involved in these different roles can create confusion. Teaching assistants work in a variety of roles in the classroom working directly with small groups, individuals and in some cases taking intervention programmes. The role of the teaching assistant and how they impact on the pupil ranges from school to school and although much of the research available suggests that teaching assistants are in fact hindering pupil progress there is some evidence that they are assisting and maximising pupil learning (Brown & Harris, 2010). This essay will focus solely on the role of the teaching assistant and whether their presence maximises pupil learning.
There are a variety of different terms used to describe staff that are in paid employment and assist in supporting the teacher; these include learning support assistant, paraprofessional, teaching assistant, and classroom support assistant. The DfEE states that ‘teaching assistant is the preferred generic term’ (DfEE, 2000, p.3) and this essay will use the term ‘teaching assistant’ to refer to all staff that support the class teacher.
Learning is a complex and dynamic term as there are a number of different learning styles and theories about how we learn (Arthur & Cremin, 2010). Learning is individual to every person and the consensus seems to be that it occurs when we assimilate knowledge through our experiences in life (Arthur & Cremin, 2010 and Pritchard, 2009). The learning process does not necessarily take place in the classroom environment and it is a continuous process throughout our lives (Pritchard, 2009). Research suggests that everyone has a ‘preferred learning style’ and this is the way in which we are able to learn most effectively (Pritchard, 2009). Therefore, for learning to be effective it needs to be presented in a number of different learning styles so that each individual has the opportunity to learn using their own preferred learning style.
Provision also needs to be made for the sharing of ideas and concepts by the use of talk which is vital if effective learning is to take place (Arthur & Cremin, 2010).
In terms of learning, the three main things which were found to influence pupil progress were teaching skills, professional characteristics and the classroom climate (Haymcber, 2000). For learning to be effective in the classroom children need the opportunity in all of these areas to learn using their preferred learning style so teachers must be aware of the children in their class and use a range of strategies to promote effective learning. Essentially, effective learning can be defined in the context of this essay as being the most efficient way of concepts and knowledge being assimilated by the child.
Reducing Teacher Workloads
The primary expectation of the NWA was that the increase in teaching assistant numbers would release teachers from their clerical tasks so that they could focus on teaching and increasing standards (Blatchford et al, 2012). Butt & Lance (2009) found that teachers agreed that their workloads had been reduced by 79% in 2009 due to the increase of teaching assistants who took over many of the clerical day to day tasks. Teachers were also found to consistently describe teaching assistants as having a positive effect on their job satisfaction (Webster et al, 2010). In school X the class teacher in Year 5 routinely commented on the benefits of having a teaching assistant in the classroom. She also described the teaching assistant as being “worth her weight in gold.” This was due to the amount of clerical work that the teaching assistant took away from the teacher’s role allowing her to do more teaching. This indicates that teachers are, therefore, able to concentrate more time on effective teaching and planning for different learning styles which in turn maximises pupil learning. However, other research has not found this to be the case (HMI, 2002). HMI (2002) found that teacher’s workloads had actually increased as a result of having the responsibility for planning for the teaching assistant and managing them. In school X the teaching assistant in Year 6 was responsible for noting evidence of children’s talk for assessing pupil progress (APP) during the lesson. Although this allowed the teacher more freedom to focus his energies on teaching and planning for the lesson he also had to plan in extra time to meet with the teaching assistant so that they could discuss the progress and next steps for specific children. In this instance although the teaching assistant was meant to be freeing up time for the teacher by taking away some of the clerical tasks the teacher was, in fact, having to create extra time to review and reflect with the teaching assistant. Therefore, this seems to go against the NWA’s aim to reduce teacher’s workloads.
The Presence of Teaching Assistants in the Classroom
There is also research available that indicates that the presence of a teaching assistant in the classroom has a positive impact on pupil learning as they become more focused and there is a general reduction in the amount of teacher talk dealing with negative behaviour (Brown & Harris, 2010 and Blatchford et al, 2009a and Bassett et al, 2011 and Webster et al, 2010). Blatchford et al (2007) found that more attention was paid to the teacher when a teaching assistant was present in the classroom. This in turn led to more individualised attention from the teacher when the teaching assistant was present and more on task behaviour. Although not directly related to maximising pupil learning it does suggest that when a teaching assistant is present in the classroom there is more on task behaviour which in turn leads to a better learning environment (Blatchford et al, 2007). In school X the class teacher felt that the role of the teaching assistant was primarily to deal with the behaviour of the most challenging pupils so that she could teach the rest of the class. In this scenario the teaching assistant was maximising learning for the rest of the class by allowing the teacher to continue teaching without any disruptions to the lesson. However, this is only one example of how teaching assistants are utilised in class and not all schools would necessarily use their teaching assistant in this way. Brown & Harris (2010) also support the idea that teaching assistants increase attainment levels as they found a positive correlation between the increase in teaching assistants in schools and rising attainment levels. However, the study primarily looked at the relationship between expenditure on staff and changes in attainment without considering other external factors which may have influenced the results (Brown & Harris, 2010). In contrast, Finn et al (2000) and Reynolds & Muijs (2003) both reported that there was no effect on pupil learning when a teaching assistant was present in the classroom. It could be argued that although the presence of the teaching assistance has an impact on the learning environment how they are deployed and utilised in the lesson is what really impacts on maximising pupil learning.
The Individual Child
Although not always the case, teaching assistants are generally allocated to a particular individual on a one to one basis if they have SEN or behavioural issues (Webster et al, 2010). An overview of the literature by Farrell et al, (2010) suggests that teaching assistants can have a positive impact in raising academic achievement of groups of pupils with learning difficulties provided that they are deployed and trained effectively. Alborz et al, (2009) and Blatchford et al, (2009a) both support the suggestion that teaching assistants are essential for the integration of SEN pupils within mainstream schools. Alborz et al, (2009) found that out of the 14 studies four showed that teaching assistants have a positive impact on SEN in maintaining their engagement and supporting them with communicating with peers. This links into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as the teaching assistant may be providing the child with the emotional support such as raising the child’s confidence and self esteem. The teaching assistant therefore plays a vital role in the child’s development as the child can only move onto the next stage of higher order learning once the other stages have been met (Maslow, 1943). In addition, Woolfson & Truswell (2005) assessed the changes in attitudes of pupils rather than solely looking at attainment levels in a small scale sample and found that the teaching assistants enhanced the quality of learning experiences and had a positive impact on the personal and social development of the children. This can be explained partly by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as the child is receiving the emotional support that they require to move on to higher order levels. Some children may find working in larger groups or speaking out in front of others difficult and the teaching assistant can help to support and encourage them to engage in the lesson. This, therefore, allows the child to access the lessons and in turn encourage their learning by becoming more confident in their own ideas. Teaching assistants also provide increased attention and promote a more active role in the interaction of questioning by the teacher. The teaching assistant can also increase whole class engagement during lessons and maximise the learning outcome of the lesson. In this way the teaching assistant is assisting in the ‘scaffolding’ of the learning by providing a more knowledgeable other that the child can interact with (Bruner, 1986). This extended interaction between an adult and the pupil also provides an enhanced opportunity for learning. As Vygotsky says, “what the child is able to do in collaboration today he will be able to do independently tomorrow” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 211). This supports the notion that by being supported by the teaching assistant and having the extended interaction they will be able to develop their learning so that eventually they will be able to carry out the task unaided.
In contrast to this, Alborz et al, (2009) suggest that in some cases there was too much reliance on the teaching assistant and this undermined the opportunity for self determination. Much of the research available indicates a negative trend for those children that receive extra support compared to similar children who had less support (Blatchford et al, 2011 & Giangreco & Broer 2007 & Giangreco et al, 2005). In this case it is difficult to determine what similar means especially as research has shown that everyone has a different learning style. Therefore, the research may have been comparing children who actually had different learning styles which may explain the trend. In other studies children who had one to one support were found to be over reliant on their teaching assistant for support and assistance with their work (Giangreco & Broer, 2007 & Giangreco et al, 2005). Vincett et al, (2005) went on to describe the relationship between the teaching assistant and the child as ‘Velcro syndrome’ (Vincett et al, 2005, pg.5). The presence of the teaching assistant on a one to one basis may, lead to less effective learning as the presence of the teaching assistant reinforces to the child that they are different and are in need of additional support. Instead of maximising pupil learning it appears that working on a one to one basis reinforces to the child that they are only able to work at this one level. The lack of pupil progress can be explained by Bruner’s theory of scaffolding which is based on Vygotsky’s premise that learning is socially constructed (Vygotsky, 1978). The scaffolding process refers to the assistance of support that enables a child to complete a task which they are unable to manage by themselves (Bruner, 1986). It is important that the teaching assistant who is assisting the child in carrying out the task removes the support so that the child can function independently. It could be argued that although teaching assistants are providing the necessary scaffolding for the child to complete the work they are unlikely to remove the support and allow the child to become independent as they are more concerned with the quantity of work that is produced rather than the process of learning. In some cases and particularly in school X the teaching assistants were more focused on the quantity of work that was completed rather than the learning and thinking skills that were taking place. During a maths lesson on mental subtraction strategies the teaching assistant advised a group of children to use the written method so that they could get through the work quicker. In this case the teaching assistant, although trying to be helpful, undermined the learning that the teacher was trying to promote. In this example the teaching assistant did not effectively maximise pupil learning but instead created a barrier to their learning by providing them with a quicker solution rather than scaffolding their learning.
When children are working on a one to one basis with the teaching assistant there is also less contact time between the teacher and the child. The child working on a one to one basis is therefore missing out on important interactions with the teacher. Blatchford et al, (2009b) found that the amount of contact time with the teacher declined when teaching assistants were present. This may hinder academic progress as they are not getting the teacher talk which is very important in learning. However, those children that are assigned a teaching assistant are generally more in need of assistance than those who are not assigned one and this may explain why even with support they are not progressing as well. In addition, Fraser & Meadows (2008) found that children view the role of a teaching assistant as useful and important to their learning because they help them with their work and are able to explain things more clearly to them. Fraser & Meadows (2008) also found that those children who did not work directly with the teaching assistant found that the teaching assistant improved the teaching in the classroom as it freed up the teacher to do more teaching with other groups. In a sense teaching assistants are maximising the learning for the other children in the class by allowing the teacher to focus more attention on the rest of the class.
Webster et al, (2011) put forward the wider pedagogical role model to interpret results of teaching assistants and their impact on pupil progress. Teaching assistants can unintentionally separate the pupil from the teacher and although they receive interactions from the teaching assistant they are not always of the same quality as that of the teacher (Webster et al, 2011). In the study by Webster et al, (2011) teachers were found to open up talking situations and to provide an environment which allowed questioning whereas teaching assistants more commonly closed down talk. This is of great concern as Wilkinson & Silliman (2000) point out “To a great extent the language used by teachers and pupils in the classrooms determines what is learned and how learning takes place.” (Wilkinson & Silliman, 2000, pg.37) Teaching assistants are not as highly trained as teachers in the pedagogy of talk and these interactions and the quality of talk that children receive is very important in maximising learning. Although there are clear benefits of assigning children to a teaching assistant so that they are able to access the curriculum, the support can sometimes be restrictive. It is clear that teaching assistants should be carefully considered when working on a one to one basis with a child and be well trained and deployed so that they can maximise the child’s learning effectively and not unintentionally restrict their learning.
Research has shown that teaching assistants are spending an increased amount of time in a direct pedagogical role with children in the classroom (Blatchford et al, 2011 and Blatchford et al, 2009a and Blatchford et al, 2009b and Butt & Lance, 2009). Rubie-Davies et al, (2010) reviewed the nature of talk between teaching assistants and children and compared it with the nature of talk between teachers and children. The analysis was general and only included a small sample but it did show that there were some similarities in the type of talk experienced by children. However, it also showed there were some major differences in the type of talk. While teachers spent time explaining concepts and questioning children, teaching assistants tended to provide the pupils with the answers and in some cases completed the work for them (Rubie-Davies et al, 2010). In this case teaching assistants are not allowing the child to maximise their learning by building up their own thinking. The research also indicates that that the dialogue between the teaching assistant and the pupil is more concerned with the communication of knowledge rather than allowing pupils to come up with their own thinking (Rubie-Davies et al, 2010). This dialogue does not allow the sharing and development of ideas which children require so that they can build their own personally constructed ideas. Teachers on the other hand tended to engage in more dialogic teaching which allows the pupil to engage in thinking (Rubie-Davies et al, 2010). Alexander (2008) has clearly stated that “talk is arguably the true foundation of learning.” (Alexander, 2008, pg.9) If this is the case then it is clear that teaching assistants need to be better trained in effective talk so that they are promoting learning through discussion of new ideas rather than closing down talk. During a science lesson in school X the teacher used higher order questioning to engage the children in dialogic talk. The teacher also scaffolded the talk but as the children began to come up with their own concepts and ideas he took on a more passive role in the talk. This links in with Bruner’s concept of scaffolding as understanding and learning can only be attained with the guidance of a more knowledgeable other, which in this case was the teacher (Bruner, 1986). On the other hand, the teaching assistant was more concerned with correcting the children’s misconceptions and gave them the answer to the question rather than letting them talk to each other and to eventually construct their own thinking.
Teaching assistants that work with small groups allow the teacher to provide differentiated and targeted learning support in the classroom. This therefore allows all the children to maximise their learning as every group is being encouraged to achieve their potential. In many cases teaching assistants are generally found to be placed with the lower ability groups and these children spend less time being taught by a qualified teacher (Ofsted, 2010). A report by HMI (2002) stated its concern over the very common problem that the least qualified people are often working with the most demanding pupils and that teaching assistants are rarely used to support and challenge the higher attaining pupils. At school X the higher ability and middle ability groups worked periodically with a teaching assistant who had excellent subject knowledge in maths to extend their learning. The teaching assistant was therefore, maximising pupil learning by extending their knowledge further than the teacher was able to provide. When teaching assistants are well trained and are effectively deployed they seem to be effective in raising standards.
Intervention strategies are frequently used in schools to assist children in attaining better attainment levels in the core subjects of English and Maths. These intervention strategies are most commonly run by teaching assistants. The Ofsted (2010) report indicates that teaching assistants who were well deployed and trained properly made a difference to pupil learning when they provided intervention programmes. Alborz et al, (2009) also agrees that teaching assistants make a positive contribution to maximising pupil learning in learning literacy and language. However, these surveys were of a small scale and are therefore not a fair representation of all teaching assistants. Intervention programmes are generally run during other foundation subjects and the children are therefore missing out on other areas of the curriculum so although the intervention programme may maximise their learning in that particular subject it actually prevents them from accessing other areas of the curriculum. At school X the children were removed from science to do their intervention programme for literacy. Despite the children getting better APP levels in literacy as a result of the intervention programme their APP levels in science dropped and this was most likely due to the fact that they were missing the majority of the science lessons for the literacy intervention programme. However, although their APP levels increased in literacy it could be argued that this was down to the teacher making sure that what was learnt during the intervention was then consolidated in the lesson to maximise the learning rather than solely the intervention run by the teaching assistant. The conceptual framework model (Todd & Powell, 2004) can also be used to expand on this idea as the child does not have access to the whole curriculum and therefore does not have all the elements available to enhance their behaviour to learn. Without these in place the chid is therefore not able to maximise their learning. Intervention programmes are clearly important for those children who require additional support in English and Maths, as without them the children would not reach expected levels. Removing the children from the class for the intervention programme also means that the teaching in the class can focus on the ability range and deliver effective learning. In turn this maximises learning for the children in the class as the intervention programme reduces the class size, therefore creating an alternative to reducing class size (Reynolds & Muijs, 2003). The smaller class allows the teacher to focus the teaching at the ability level in the class and therefore gives the children more direct and focused learning.
It is clear that the most effective intervention strategies do not see intervention in isolation from the lesson but look to consolidate and develop what has been learnt in the intervention into the classroom (Ofsted, 2010). When teaching assistants are effectively prepared and deployed they are able to offer effective learning opportunities in intervention programmes.
Current research on the role of teaching assistants and pupil learning suggests that the presence of teaching assistants does not improve pupil learning. (Blatchford et al, 2007) However, Blatchford et al, (2007) warn that we should be careful not to suppose that teaching assistants do not have a role to play in pupil learning as it is not always easy to assess the subtle impacts on learning and the attitudes to learning that result from the teaching assistant being present.
When teachers and teaching assistants work in partnership they are able to create an effective learning environment for children. It is important that with the changing role of teaching assistants to a direct pedagogical role that they are trained and deployed effectively so that they can successfully contribute to maximising pupil learning. It is evident that more research is needed in this field especially due to the increased number of teaching assistants present in classrooms. There also needs to be a more clearly defined boundaries between the role of the teaching assistant and the teacher as these boundaries are becoming more blurred (Butt & Lance, 2009). In addition, teaching assistants and teachers need more non contact time to plan and reflect on lessons together so that they are able to clearly define and clarify the roles and responsibilities during the lesson (Butt & Lance, 2009). It is also important to have the reflection as to what strategies are working in providing maximum learning and whether there are other strategies which may be more efficient.
Finally, research and reviews have shown that the increase in teaching assistants needs to be carefully managed so that they can successfully fulfil their role and provide excellent learning opportunities for children. When teaching assistants are prepared and deployed effectively they are able to extend and develop children’s learning. However, whether they effectively maximise pupil learning is an ongoing debate. What is clear from the research is that teaching assistants are taking on a more pedagogical role and if they are to be effective in maximising pupil learning they need to be well trained in the pedagogy of teaching.
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