2014 ends with positive noises for TAs… but what will 2015 bring?

17 December 2014 by Rob Webster

Compared to recent years, 2014 saw a veritable deluge of positive developments for TAs; much of which came in recent months. October was particularly busy with the Dept. for Education announcing a review of standards for TAs and the Education Select Committee launching a review of ‘the strength of the evidence in relation to the current policy on teaching assistants, their deployment and impact’. A month earlier, shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt promised to create a pay and conditions architecture for TAs and other support staff should Labour succeed at the next election.

The new school year brought with it a new Ofsted inspection framework and the much-anticipated revised SEN Code of Practice. Whilst the new Code had surprisingly little to say about the role of TAs, the new Ofsted handbook at least made it clear that ‘Inspectors must evaluate the use of and contribution made by teaching assistants’ (paragraph 179, page 58). Though we note with interest that those terms – ‘use of’ and ‘contribution made’ – are not further defined).

Finally, we’ve had days to celebrate the work of support staff and (by my reckoning) the first Parliamentary debate on the role and value of TAs. All of this represents considerable progress. Yet, one thing continued to dominate the year: the on-going ‘war on TA research’.

Throughout the year, schools have been asking questions about the well-publicised reports from thinktanks and that graph based on the work of the Education Endowment Foundation, both of which suggest TAs offer little or no impact at high cost.

It’s clear from the work we do with schools that senior leaders, teachers and TAs are well acquainted with the media reports that continue to cite these sources. The trouble is that these reports too often oversimplify a complex research base on this topic. 

To see what happens when our research get misused, witness events in North Carolina, USA. In June, the state Senate slashed 7,400 TA jobs in order to increase teachers’ pay by 11%. This action, so the rationale went, would make teaching a more attractive in a state where retaining high quality teachers has been a perennial problem. It transpired a partial reading of the DISS project findings was used to justify the proposals.

Given the precarious state of school funding and the growing demand to demonstrate ‘impact’, it’s inevitable that TAs in the UK are apprehensive about their future. The reality is that the evidence on the effects of TA support requires careful unpicking. We’ve spent a lot of 2014 both busting the myths and guiding schools on how to maximise the impact of their TA workforce.

The message has reached hundreds of schools this year through a variety of channels. Our joint work with Mencap and with Achievement for All, and our training events and conference keynotes have been well received by school leaders and SENCos. At the same time, our MITA programme for school leaders goes from strength to strength. And the model of knowledge transfer we developed for it has since been applied to other school-based projects.

It’s difficult to predict what 2015 might bring for TAs beyond the government reviews of standards and evidence that will report early in the year. Intriguingly, there is a hint in the flurry of activity this autumn that political parties have woken up to the size and power of the TA constituency. There are 369,700 TAs working in publicly-funded schools in England. So with the general election in May, that’s a lot of potential votes for any party that can successfully woo TAs.

As for our MITA work, we’ll be running our first set of regional conferences in January in Exeter, Birmingham and Sheffield, and we will continue to welcome schools onto the MITA programme at the UCL Institute of Education, London. We’ve also got big news on the publications front…. more of which in due course.

2015 is sure to be a big year for MITA, and we very much hope you can share in it.

Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!