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CPD, Redesigning Classrooms

The Super Powered Assistants of Teachers by @ReadingWise

I’ve always thought that reading, literacy in general, was the gateway to the curriculum.  Without it students struggle to access subjects and their content.  A number of months ago I first met Jamie Fries and decided with the academies three head teachers to employ ReadingWise across the Trust to help improve reading and comprehension skills.

ReadingWise Logo

I’m delighted that Jamie agreed to share some thoughts about the potential of ReadingWise and in this blog post the use and impact of teaching assistants.

Prefacing a job type in education with the word ‘super’ makes for headlines, stars, and not much else. We’ve had superheads, superteachers and super teaching assistants. We all like a story, and every story has its chief protagonist, and what better way to sell in the idea that something important is taking place in the world of education than to hang it on the abilities of the heroic few.

Truth is, and notwithstanding the fact that there are those who seem born to the job, whose very characters appear preternaturally designed to teach, education is not about the mythic super individual. It’s about individuals working within systems, and it’s the very quality of the system that allows individuals to flourish. This is not being an ant. It’s about having visions and the systems to enable those visions, to follow through, to make them happen, nationally, within local authorities, in individual schools and in the classroom. Lest we forget, the learning experience is a structured experience.

Photo Credit: Tim Malabuyo via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Tim Malabuyo via Flickr cc

This is a big subject, but especially pertinent to Making the Best Use of Teaching Assistants, a recently published piece of research by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), which shows that the £4 billion spent annually on TAs can do much to raise pupil attainment. It challenges the general and negative assertion that this annual spend, and therefore that TAs, are something of gargantuan waste of money.  There is nothing measurable, says Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS), a giant five year government sponsored piece of independent research, to show that the spending has done much to raise pupil attainment.

The lack of progress, according to the government research, is the result of several interconnected factors.  In terms of their jobs, the feedback was that while most support staff report general satisfaction, the majority identify both lack of training opportunities and low pay as cause for concern.  The majority of teachers do not have a set feedback or planning time with support staff. Most of support staff time is spent with low attaining and/or SEN children.  The teaching carried out by TAs is more reactive than proactive, and focuses in on completion of tasks rather than ‘learning and understanding.’ Incredibly, apart from Year 9, where there is a direct positive correlation between support and progress, at lower and primary levels, ‘the more support pupils received, the less progress they made.’  It is a most depressing report.

There are lots of ways to go about challenging research like this, not least the most obvious, which is to question how genuinely useful the many means by which we measure our children’s progress.  However, while teachers feedback with regards to the efficacy of their support is wholly positive, I’m reasonably certain that, hand on heart, many would agree that using TAs to informally hive low attaining and SEN children off – in or out of the classroom – is not the way forward.

Besides, the EEF’s not for moving goalposts.  Rather, its research is a pinpoint-type evidence-based response to the findings.

It’s not about TA bashing, and it’s not about teacher bashing.  It believes wholly in the good of support staff, and posits the findings – DISS and related Teaching and Learning Toolkit data – as evidence of a systemic failure to make use of a potentially game changing resource.  To wit, it largely concurs with the DISS’s findings, if not its conclusions, examines the evidence, and makes a series of practical recommendations.

First, it argues that TAs in everyday classroom contexts ought:

  • Not be used as an informal resource for low attaining pupils
  • Not to replace teachers, but rather add value to what teachers do
  • Assist pupils in developing independent learning skills and in the managing of their own learning
  • Ensure TAs are fully prepared for their role in the classroom.

Second, that in the use of ‘structured interventions out of class’ TAs should be:

  • Deployed to target one-to-one and small group interventions with ‘high quality support and training’
  • Used in interventions that have an evidence-based proven track record.

Finally, it advises that ‘explicit connections (be) made between learning from everyday classroom teaching and structured interventions’, highlighting the fact that heavy workloads and lack of time mean that teachers and TAs often fail to knit classroom interventions and in-class learning together.

In plain English, teachers teach, and support staff support that teaching – a job that includes facilitating interventions, but by no means just these, and certainly not so much as to be held responsible for them.  Everyday teacher’s contact with children, low attaining or not, is essential. The very best interventions are those known to succeed, facilitated by TAs and teachers, their aims, objectives and outcomes crystal clear.  Plus, all interventions, wherever they take place, and however excellently carried out, need to feed back into whatever is going on in the class as a whole.  If an intervention looks like becoming a habit and not much else, then it needs to be called out.

Photo: St. Cuthbert's Children on National Book Day

Photo: St. Cuthbert’s Children on National Book Day

In our academies, Christ the King, St Cuthbert’s and St Mary’s, we have implemented the ReadingWise English literacy intervention.   ReadingWise deliver training at the outset, which gives TAs the skills to deliver to up to 10 targeted learners at a time.  This approach is in line with the findings of the EEF report, and represents a proactive and empowering approach to deploying support staff to deliver impact the key area of literacy.  Through a dashboard the classroom teachers and literacy coordinators have visibility of the progress learners are making under the supervision of the TAs, allowing them to offer timely support and peer review opportunities.

After the downer that was DISS, good news: all is not lost.  Teachers are right to need, want and love having teaching assistants. Even so, be warned: as the role of support staff receives more and more policy making attention, so will be born, somewhere down the line, a pupil progress headline grabbing initiative based on the superpowers of a certain brand of teaching assistant.  Please, ignore the hook.  Do not bite.  Behind every successful educator, a system based on the well-being and learning of the children in their care, one that, like the recommendations suggested in Making the Best Use of Teaching Assistants, is designed to provide a set of non-mythic and eminently practical solutions to a problem identified. Meaning: read the research, implement the recommendations, and let’s make some evidence-based ideas become super real.

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