The total number of TAs working in English schools is down for the first time ever – but encouraging signs from the MITA project show how a strategic focus on TAs can unlock their potential.
What I’ve learned from the teaching profession (or why you can’t ever have enough of experts!)
28 September 2016 by Rob Webster
Earlier this month I spent a rainy Sunday in my loft in search of an old cassette tape*. Opening an unmarked box, I chanced upon a set of old conference notes, dated 4th September 2009. These notes, which I had written exactly seven years ago to the day, were a script for my part in a keynote address at the British Educational Research Association (BERA) conference. The conference that year was held at the University of Manchester. It rained that day too.
I was there as part of a team of six researchers, led by Peter Blatchford, to deliver papers on the findings from the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project. The results were published on the same day to coincide with the keynote. Already that morning, Peter, the project director, had done a round of radio interviews to discuss the findings. Several national newspapers featured the story and it was across the front page of the TES. I joined my colleagues in Manchester mid-morning, bringing with me press cuttings I'd collected from left-behind newspapers I found on the train.
The unusual level of interest was all down to the DISS project’s surprising and controversial findings. Our data showed, quite decisively, that the widespread ways in which teaching assistants (TAs) were being used in schools was having an unintended, negative impact on pupil attainment.
Last year, as part of its 40th anniversary celebrations, the DISS project was recognised by BERA one of “ 40 landmark studies that have had a significant impact on educational policy, practice, research methodology and/or theory” over the last four decades. As I continued the hunt for my box of cassettes, I pondered on just how much the impact of the DISS project, and the other research I’ve been privileged to be involved with, owes to productive dialogue and collaboration with the teaching profession over the last seven years.
Off the back of the exposure the DISS project received, Peter, myself and our colleague, Tony Russell, were invited to talk about the research at conferences for senior leaders and SENCos. It soon became clear that a repeat performance of the BERA keynote was, while interesting, not what participants had come to hear. The careful exposition of the methodology required for an academic audience was of somewhat less interest to school and classroom professionals. What they really wanted were answers to burning questions about what they could do to mitigate the problems the research had identified.
Addressing these questions has been at the centre of almost everything I’ve done in my career since those early conferences. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the work would not have evolved in such productive and meaningful ways had it not been for a constant dialogue with school leaders, SEN professionals and class teachers. Their deep practical and conceptual knowledge has strengthened and improved almost every aspect of my professional life and outputs. Those at the chalk-face have shaped the research, the processes and ideas captured in the books I’ve co-written and the coverage of our Maximising the Impact of TAs courses, as well as providing examples of their great practice for wider sharing. It’s an enriching and rewarding thing to be a part of.
The relationship between research and practice, and between researchers and practitioners, has been the subject of increasing interest in recent years. The issues with access to academic journals and the occasionally impenetrable language the articles are written in are well rehearsed. My view is that educational researchers do themselves and their profession no favours if they think their job ends with the publication of a journal paper. If our work is not translated (and indeed translatable) into something of use for practitioners, then we’re letting the side down. After all, whether we ply our trade in classrooms or the lecture halls and libraries, we're all in it to make a difference to the learning and life chances of children and young people.
Many researchers I know and work with are motivated by this challenge and do excellent public engagement work. Social media makes it almost effortless to connect with practitioners (and even parents). I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been up way past my bedtime absorbed in conversations on Twitter with people offering fresh insights and challenging my thinking. In the offline world, events like ResearchED have brought academics and teachers together, and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) does a skillful job in demystifying research and making it more easily accessible that it’s ever been before.
The result is that there now exists a viable, equal and free space for researchers and practitioners to debate and share. I think this has forced researchers to up their game and to shape their work to reflect the needs of time-poor school leaders and teachers. Even school research leads, who may have some non-contact time to devote to this task, appreciate clear distillations of evidence and actionable ‘what to do next’ strategies. Minimally, these strategies should be standard outputs of research activities, but moreover, we should be providing/demanding more active dissemination capable of not just transmitting research, but carefully walking through school leaders and teachers how to act on the evidence in a practical ways. Crucially, these efforts must be balanced with the realities and pressures of working in schools and classrooms. The message to researchers, then, is that if we want practitioners to make use of our work, we have to make the first move in terms of converting it into useable, real-world applications and offer them up for stress-testing.
It was exactly these considerations that we had in mind when Peter and I published the Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants guidance report with Jonathan Sharples from the EEF, in March 2015. This guidance has been put into practice by schools in South and West Yorkshire as part of a large EEF-funded initiative and it also provides the structuring framework of our MITA course for school leaders. What these most recent experiences revealed was that while our evidence-informed recommendations (the ‘what’, if you like) have been well received, the critical dialogue with the profession demonstrated a need for us to be more explicit on the ‘how’; in other words, implementation.
Yet again, an exciting interchange of ideas with the profession (some of whom are now our ‘go-to people’ for advice and proofing) has led to another wave of effort to help school leaders, teachers and TAs act on the evidence. We’ve now produced a bundle of free supplementary resources to help schools review practice and plan improvements. And once again, the ideas for these templates and frameworks emerged largely from schools and conversations with expert and experienced senior leaders. It has been entirely the privilege of Jonathan and I to collate and curate these resources and provide the means for dissemination. As part of that on-going cycle, hundreds of schools across Lincolnshire will be among the first to trial these resources alongside the guidance as part of the Mobilise project.
Back in my loft, as I shifted a pile of carpet off-cuts to reveal a packing crate full of cassette tapes, another thought occurred. This summer, a former education secretary told a television interviewer "people in this country have had enough of experts”. The inherent danger in this statement is pretty self-evident, and applied to the teaching profession, it’s a particularly maleficent. It’s no surprise to me that the solutions to many of the issues we face in education are as likely (perhaps more likely) to be found in schools as the sort of university departments where I work. As an example, some of the most impactful ideas for improving outcomes that are subject to EEF-funded trials began life in schools. But if the experience of the last seven years has taught me anything, its that the synergistic effects of bringing the research and teaching worlds together will accomplish more than either might alone.
Mr Gove may’ve had enough of experts; frankly, I can’t get enough of them.
* Kristin Hersh’s Hips and Makers' from 1994. Enjoy it here!