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 Special Educational Needs in Secondary Education (SENSE) Study
The SEN in Secondary Education (SENSE) study builds on our earlier Making a Statement (MAST) study, which looked at the educational experiences of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in primary schools. The SENSE study tracked 60 pupils with Statements and Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs); half of who featured in the MAST study.
Taken together, the MAST and SENSE studies represent the largest observational research project ever conducted in the UK on pupils with SEND. It is based on 1,340 hours of classroom observation and 490 interviews with school staff, parents and pupils.
The SENSE study findings call into question the overall effectiveness of provision and quality of the educational experiences available to pupils with Statements/EHCPs in mainstream settings. The findings emerge at a time when schools generally, and the SEND system specifically, face great challenges.
The results reveal that the educational experiences of pupils with Statements/EHCPs in mainstream secondary schools is characterised by a form of ‘streaming’. Schools tend to handle SEND provision via the wider organisation of teaching by ‘ability’ and by allocating additional adult support to classes for pupils with SEND, rather than by concentrating on improving the quality and accessibility of teaching.
Teaching assistants (TAs) were central to strategies for educating pupils with Statements/EHCPs, with school staff and parents indicating that pupils would be unable to ‘cope’ in a mainstream setting without it. We were unable to find evidence of an effective and theoretically-grounded pedagogy for pupils with SEND in the instructional approaches used by either teachers or TAs. Furthermore, we found that staff were often not adequately trained in teaching pupils with SEND.
We conclude that the systemic use of TAs is compensating or covering for failures relating to teacher training, task planning, and broader attempts to make teaching more inclusive. In particular, we query whether school leaders have given SEND sufficient priority at the strategic level.
We call on school leaders to be courageous and make the education of children and young people with learning difficulties and disabilities a strategic priority. We also suggest a concerted, system-wide approach is required in order to improve the confidence and competence of teachers to teach pupils with SEND. And once again, we restate our call for school leaders to rethink the role of TAs with regard to SEND.
The SENSE study was funded by a grant from the Nuffield Foundation.