The 'unsung heroes' of the pandemic

During the Winter 2021 lockdown period, Rob Webster worked with colleagues at the UCL IOE International Literacy Centre – Gemma Moss, Alice Bradbury and Sinead Harmey – to conduct a large-scale, national survey of TAs working in schools in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

The findings tell a compelling story about how vital TAs have been to keeping schools open during lockdowns, and keeping children learning

The majority of our 9,055 respondents worked in primary or early years settings (70%), 12% were in secondary, and 13% in special schools. The study was funded by Unison. The key findings are:

1. TAs have been pivotal in allowing schools to keep functioning during the pandemic. It is hard to see how schools could have managed without them. During the Winter 2021 lockdown, almost half of TAs covered staff absences, enabling schools to stay open to vulnerable and key worker children. The majority of TAs (88%) supported vulnerable and keyworker children in school. Just over half managed a whole class or bubble on their own.

2. TAs have played a vital role in supporting pupil learning in schools during successive lockdowns. In many ways they are the unsung heroes of the pandemic. In addition to leading classes, TAs continued to offer more targeted support. Half of TAs provided differentiated support to individuals working on tasks; around a third delivered targeted interventions; a third were running one-to-one and small group support sessions; and a third were involved in bespoke support to pupils with a support plan. 

3. TAs on the frontline felt vulnerable as they worked in school during the lockdown. The risks of exposure to Covid played on their minds. The majority of TAs reported that, as well as supporting learning, they had been responsible for minimising transmission risks by cleaning equipment and furniture, and reminding pupils to maintain social distancing. Instances where TAs were expected to take prime responsibility for working with children on site during the lockdown led to sharp criticism.

4. TAs have played an important role in enabling children to carry on learning purposefully at home. Though largely unnoticed, TAs undertook a range of additional tasks, such as preparing hard copy learning packs; liaising with families; participating in live streamed lessons; checking pupils had completed work set remotely; and offering support to pupils having difficulties with home learning. However, almost four in ten TAs had been asked to do new things without training.

5. Helping pupils readjust to school is at the forefront of TAs’ minds as schools begin to reopen fully. Many TAs thought that the biggest impacts of the disruption would fall on the pupils they typically support. TAs thought that addressing pastoral care, pupil wellbeing and rebuilding school routines would be very important following lockdown.

6. The Covid crisis has underlined the value of the contribution TAs make to their schools. Their insights and knowledge should be drawn on in the effort to rebuild education. Nearly nine in ten TAs agreed that “people underestimated the difficulties the pandemic created for schools”. Yet, despite the central contribution TAs have made to keeping schools open and functioning, barely a quarter considered that their own school had become more aware of their role in supporting pupils and families. 

Our research reveals how essential TAs are to the day-to-day running of schools. This is true in more normal times as well as during a pandemic. If we are to build a more resilient education system going forward, then their voices need to be heard. The unique understanding and clear view of what matters most within their communities, which they have gained from working on the frontline, should be respected and recognised.

Download the research report here

Selected media coverage

Teaching assistants 'unsung heroes' of pandemic, study shows –The Guardian, 1 April 2021

Teaching assistants 'are the unsung heroes of Covid' –Tes, 1 April 2021