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.
The Making a Statement (MAST) Study
Ahead of the biggest shake up of the special educational needs (SEN) system in some 30 years, and also in light of the findings from the DISS project, we spent a year looking at the day-to-day experiences of teaching and support for pupils with a Statement of SEN. Our Making a Statement (MAST) project, which was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, raises important points for local authorities and schools to consider in light of the forthcoming changes.
Over 2011/12, we carried out minute-by-minute observations on 48 pupils in Year 5 who had Statements for moderate learning difficulties or behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, and interviewed 200 school staff and parents. The results show that the educational experience of pupils with Statements is characterised by a high degree of separation. Compared to average-attaining pupils, they spent over a quarter of their week away from their class, teacher and peers.
A clear point to emerge was the almost constant accompanying presence of a teaching assistant (TA). Compared to average-attaining pupils, we found that pupils with Statements spent less time in whole class teaching with teachers, and were more than three times more likely to interact with TAs than teachers. TAs also had the main responsibility for differentiating tasks, often in the moment, having had little or no opportunity before lessons to prepare with the teacher. Teachers typically had a lower level of involvement in planning for and teaching Statemented pupils, most likely reflecting their limited knowledge of how to meet the needs of these pupils.
As a result of current arrangements, we found that whilst the support provided by TAs was clearly well intentioned, it seems insufficient to close the attainment gap. The MAST study findings raise particular concerns about the common currency of Statements: a set number of hours of TA support. A key message from our research is that the Education, Health and Care Plans, set to replace Statements from September 2014, should specify the pedagogical processes and strategies that will help meet carefully defined outcomes.