The TA Professional Standards: How the DfE turned an easy win into an own goal

15 October 2015 by Rob Webster

That sound you heard was a gunshot. Self-imposed and straight through education ministers' collective foot.

Today the brilliant edu-sleuths at CSI Schools Week revealed that on 7th October, Nick Gibb informed Parliament that after a seven month delay, his line manager Nicky Morgan, has decided not to publish the draft professional standards for teaching assistants.

Five years after abandoning the development of a quasi-independent body to standardise pay and conditions for school support staff, this deeply disappointing news almost certainly signals the end of official centralised efforts to develop such frameworks - and at a time when they are needed more than ever.

Despite warm words from ministers about TAs’ value and contribution to schools, and widespread support for the standards across the profession, the DfE’s decision to reject the standards will puzzle and frustrate. Not helped by the DfE’s ‘under the radar’ announcement, it will leave TAs and school leaders in little doubt that ministers have no serious interest in developing the professional standing of the 330,000 classroom support staff working in English schools.

Moreover, it adds to the growing sense that the Government is undermining other efforts to improve the attainment and chances of disadvantaged learners, such as the Pupil Premium – much of which funds additional classroom support.

Mr Gibb’s brief statement on the decision to reject the standards is worth repeating in full; not least so that we can skewer the supposed logic in the ministerial team’s reasoning. Remember: the standards were drafted by a panel led by and including leaders of schools with exemplary practice in TA usage.

“Ministers have considered the latest evidence on the effective deployment and professional development of teaching assistants, together with a summary of the call for evidence and the draft teaching assistant standards submitted by the expert panel.

In the light of this evidence, the Government believes that schools are best placed to decide how they use and deploy teaching assistants, and to set standards for the teaching assistants they employ. The Secretary of State has therefore decided not to publish the draft standards”.

The perverse logic exposed here is that ministers are content to comprehensively reject guidance prepared by the very constituency they tell us are best placed to make decisions about TAs!

True, there is a need for latitude and autonomy in decision-making, as specified in the DfE’s briefing to the panel. But the standards were never intended to be compulsory; school leaders would always have the final say. Yet the view of many researchers and practitioners is that headteachers’ decision-making is much improved when it is informed by a commonly-agreed, structuring framework, developed on the basis of sound research and common experience. No-one is advocating for a fine-grained recipe; just the necessary ingredients.

Responding to last month’s news of the latest delay to the TA standards, I blogged about the value of having such a framework to underpin best practice. I echoed a point raised by my colleague, Paula Bosanquet, that ‘no definition of the term teaching assistant or description of what they should (and shouldn’t) do has ever been agreed’.

Paula and I, and many of the school leaders, teachers and TAs we meet week after week, agree that some form of central strategy for benchmarking professional models of TA employment, deployment and conduct are necessarily a good thing. We have standards for ensuring teacher quality and school quality; why not for TAs? At the very least, it would show the significance we attach to their role and contribution.

The discourtesy shown by ministers to the TA panel – who volunteered their time and expertise freely, and were not informed in advance of Mrs Morgan’s decision – should not go unnoticed by the members of the other expert panels that ministers have set up to advise and develop ‘products’ to tackle educational issues. The draft TA standards are far from controversial. If ministers are prepared to dismiss experts' advice on TAs’ professional status, how will they respond to views on more emotive issues, such as working to the age of 68 or excessive workload? 

So where does this leave us? Well, during the two hours it took to write this blog, the standards have been published! Credit to Schools Week for saving them from Mrs Morgan’s recycling bin. 

A relief perhaps for school leaders, but a public relations debacle the DfE can ill afford.