Why the hold up? The DfE can show they value the role and contribution of TAs by publishing the professional standards NOW!

11 September 2015 by Rob Webster

Already six months overdue, word has finally left the Dept. for Education on the progress towards the professional standards for teaching assistants. So what’s the latest? Delayed. Again.

Thanks in part to the persistence of Unison’s head of education, Jon Richards, Schools Week reports today that a publication date has still yet to be set, despite the original intention of releasing the standards before the pre-election purdah.

My understanding is that the expert panel fulfilled the DfE’s brief in timely fashion, producing a set of clear, concise and commonsense standards to underpin professional development and ‘to inspire confidence in teaching assistants and ensure that schools use their skills and expertise to best effect’.

It seems clear the cause of the delay has nothing to do with the expert panel. We can only speculate on why the DfE is still sitting on the draft standards.

Ministers would no doubt argue that they would rather delay and get it right – ensuring (rightly so) that the standards are informed by the best available evidence. Yet one of the best up-to-date summaries of the national and international research on this topic was published in March – when the standards were originally due – so any further delay can’t be down to a paucity of evidence.

The standards were in the remit of former minister David Laws, who was one of the many Lib Dem MPs to lose his seat in May’s election. Perhaps civil servants have yet to find the file in his abandoned in-tray?

Mr Richards’s view is that the publication of the standards is not at the ‘top of their [DfE’s] priorities at the moment’. The standards were never intended to be mandatory, and there is other overdue guidance on assessment without levels that schools will arguably be keener to get their hands on as the new academic year breaks out of third gear.

None of this dials down the importance of, or the need for, the TA standards. But it’s difficult not to think Mr Richards might be on to something: despite warm words about their value and contribution to schools, TAs have barely featured on the DfE’s radar since 2010. And this over a period when their numbers continue to rise. On the basis of headcount, about a third of staff employed in primary and nursery settings are TAs.

A bit more charitably, it could be that the delay is the result of some welcome joined-up thinking. Perhaps the DfE has seen an opportunity to align the outcomes of the review of TA standards with a similar exercise announced this week in relation to CPD standards for teachers?

The system may only tolerate so much postponement. It’s possible that the emergence of the TA standards may be overtaken by events. As Schools Week reported in the summer, the estimated £1 billion of annual savings schools will need to find to balance their budgets will put potentially tens of thousands of jobs at risk – and despite there being a good case against a significant reduction in TA numbers – the next cut, as we’re often warned, is bone.

Despite the push to devolve decision-making to schools, some things tend to work more effectively when underpinned by a commonly-agreed framework. The new Ofsted handbook – so often referred to by school leaders as an arbiter of ‘what they should be doing’ – has vanishingly little to say about the use of TAs. Beyond this and the bloated set of standards due for replacement, there is nothing schools can use with confidence and authority to plan and develop their TA workforce. 

My colleague, Paula Bosanquet, makes the point that ‘no definition of the term teaching assistant or description of what they should (and shouldn’t) do has ever been agreed’. There is a case then for driving out ambiguity through greater centralisation. As Paula continues:

Lack of a clear role description is the norm for many TAs. This makes it difficult for them. It also makes it difficult for the teachers managing them – what can they be asked to do? What shouldn’t they be asked to do? Where does the responsibility for outcomes lie?

Whatever we may feel about it, the language of ‘impact’ and ‘demonstrating impact’ is uppermost in the minds of headteachers, and it drives much decision-making in schools. The TA standards will not be sufficient on their own, but together with the work Paula, myself and other colleagues are doing to support schools to maximise the impact of TAs, they are a vital part of a coordinated approach to ensuring that schools accurately define TAs’ contribution and help them to thrive in their role.

Disappointing though this latest setback is, it is as much in the interests of an embattled DfE to avoid further delay to publication of the TA standards as it is for schools. What better way to demonstrate support for a large section of the school workforce that for too long has been under-appreciated and under-invested? Publish and damned? Or publish and be praised?