DfE Research: Mainstream Teaching Assistant cuts negatively impacting SEND pupils

Amy Skipp with Rob Webster, Associate Professor in the Centre for Inclusive Education, UCL Institute of Education

Research: Mainstream Teaching Assistant cuts negatively impacting SEND pupils

At the start of this academic year ASK Research were commissioned by DfE to find out how schools are using TAs in their schools. We spoke to senior leaders in 60 mainstream schools – 30 primary and 30 secondary - with a range of different characteristics (such as numbers on the SEN register, FSM eligibility, etc) from around the country.

Here I, as the main author of the report, summarise what we found. The full report can be found here. In the second section of this article, Rob Webster, who leads the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants programme at UCL Institute of Education, then reflects on these findings along with what we know about effective TA use and what the latest workforce data from the Department shows.

Main findings

We found 3 main ways in which schools were using TAs:

  1. As whole class support in Primary schools – this meant they were working with all children and providing an ‘extra pair of hands’ in a class of young pupils.
  2. As in-class targeted support for pupils with SEND (and in much fewer cases for pupils with EAL and looked after children). These TAs were described as supporting learners in the class by differentiating the whole class teaching, managing behavior and anxiety and implementing strategies known to help pupils with SEND.
  3. Delivering interventions out of class, most often with pupils with SEND. These interventions included bought in numeracy and literacy programmes, social and mental well-being support and preparation and recapping of work covered in class lessons.

We found that TAs were carrying out many other tasks alongside these main roles such as gathering and preparing evidence for EHCP review meetings, preparing resources, running after school groups and lunchtime supervision. Also for pupils with EHCPs TAs were supporting their mobility (such as moving between lessons), monitoring and administering medical support (from giving meds to cleaning feeding tubes) and in some cases were providing personal care (such as supporting toileting).

Amy Skipp
Amy Skipp

School leaders spoke very highly of the value TAs brought to their school – not only were they carrying out a vital role in helping the most vulnerable learners to access education but also were seen as helping classroom management, reducing teacher workload and supporting behavior management across the school. In addition they were frequently liaising with parents, providing greater adult to child interaction and providing pupils with a different type of relationship to that they have with teachers.

“They are the engine of our school”

“TAs are integral to our pupils’ learning and wellbeing”

However, in 38 of the 60 schools (18 Primary and 20 Secondary) numbers of TAs were reported to have decreased in the last few years. Headteachers said this was due to reduced available funding. Less funding was available as schools had less money, LAs provided fewer support services (such as SaLT or physio), less money attached to EHC plans, and fewer children getting plans. In 11 schools numbers had gone up but this was in response to quite large increases in groups of children with additional needs.

When there were fewer TAs, schools were having to make decisions about how they were allocated.  They were trying to balance what they could afford with what they needed in a number of ways, including:

  • Most schools prioritised pupils with EHC plans – in some cases this was at the expense of pupils on SEN support
  • Whole class TAs were being reduced in Primary schools, focusing them more on children with identified needs
  • Many schools allocated TAs to support groups of pupils, whereas previously they may have had a more one-to-one role. They were also offering more general interventions (that greater number of children could attend) rather than programmes specially tailored to meet pupils identified needs
  • Some schools had taken away subject specialist TAs and some were only able to allocate TAs to certain year groups, such as year 6 (before transition to secondary schools) or Year 10 (when preparing for exams)
  • TA roles were being expanded meaning they were taking on more and wider responsibility and their planning time was being reduced.
  • Some schools were relying on staff from temp agencies to fill their TA roles, or were unable to cover TA staff off sick.

What do school leaders say?

School leaders reported the impacts of these hard choices as being:

  • They could not provide the type and level of additional input they would want to for all of their pupils who needed it.
  • Concerns that pupils with EHC plans were not necessarily getting fully personalised TA input tailored to their specific needs. This was due to the TA working with several pupils with different needs at once. Some schools specifically reported concerns they were not meeting their statutory obligations. A number of school leaders and SENCOs also reported having ‘uncomfortable conversations’ with parents of children with an EHC plan about use of their child’s personal budget. It is allocated to meet the needs of their child but in reality it is being ‘spent’ across a range of other pupils.
  • TAs were increasingly only being deployed to support pupils with EHC plans, meaning they were no longer able to work, or intervene early, with other pupils with identified needs such as the SEN support cohort, or those with anxiety and mental health issues. Some schools raised concerns that these pupils were missing out on support, but also that bigger issues could be building up for the future.
  • A small number of schools were having to consider whether they could provide a safe and appropriate (in terms of being able to fully access the curriculum and not preventing other pupils from learning) place for pupils with EHC plans, and therefore considering whether or not to offer a school place to these pupils.
  • An increase in the number of pupils with SEND has meant that funding to resource TAs had to be taken from the support and activities for all other pupils (with schools noting that the notional SEND budget and LA top up was insufficient to meet costs).
  • Some schools say they are deliberately trying to attract particular cohorts for whom ring-fenced funding is allocated. This is so that they can continue to afford and increase their TA numbers.
  • Limiting the times for planning and preparation for TAs as they were being stretched across more pupils and tasks.

Rob Webster: Cutting TAs in mainstream threatens inclusion

The findings from ASK Research’s work are as concerning as they are timely. While the DfE, teaching unions and others fixate, quite understandably, on addressing the impact of excessive teacher workload and the knock-on effect on teacher recruitment and retention, the crisis in SEND deepens.

Rob Webster
Rob Webster

School leaders interviewed for this research spoke very highly of the value of TAs. This, of course, is encouraging to hear, and in many ways reflects a significant, though rarely commented on, cultural and structural change in the school system over the last 15 or so years. Such is the essentialness of TAs to the day-to-day functioning of mainstream schools that it’s virtually impossible to imagine what things would be like should they no longer be there [paywall].

It’s the finding that almost two-thirds of the 60 schools consulted for the research reported decreasing TA numbers that will resonate. On the basis of research I’ve led at UCL IOE, I’m of the view that when it comes to the provision and education of learners with SEND in mainstream settings, TAs are like the mortar in the brickwork. I don’t believe it’s any exaggeration to say that the continued chipping out of that mortar threatens the integrity of the whole edifice.

“...when it comes to the provision and education of learners with SEND in mainstream settings, TAs are like the mortar in the brickwork. I don’t believe it’s any exaggeration to say that the continued chipping out of that mortar threatens the integrity of the whole edifice.” Rob Webster
There are some important reasons, illustrated in this new research, why the DfE needs to urgently train its focus on the relationship between TAs and SEN. Firstly, our TA workforce seems to be getting more and more stretched, as the gravitational pull of the teacher workload crisis becomes harder to resist. One probable effect of what we see happening with teachers is that TAs are taking on lesson cover and other duties normally performed by teachers, and this is diverting TAs from providing SEN support. This seems particularly acute in the secondary school sector, where not only is the teacher recruitment and retention crisis at its most critical, but where we have also seen a 16% decrease in the TA workforce since 2012.

Who’s helping children on SEN Support?

Secondly, one of the difficult decisions described by school leaders in the research suggests a trend toward deploying TAs to support pupils with EHCPs at the expense of those on SEN Support. This is another artefact of the stretching of TA capacity, and a concerning one, because it is not clear to what extent teachers are providing the necessary back-fill. In other words, if TAs are not providing the additional support for pupils on SEN Support, who is?

Emma Hardy MP, who sits on the Education Committee, recently put it to ministers that the evidence submitted to its inquiry on SEN suggests ‘overwhelmingly’ that pupils on SEN Support ‘are not getting the support that they need’. Their response, shall we say, lacked conviction.  

The third reason the DfE need to be alive to what is going on with TAs and SEN is complacency. Against the trend suggested by anecdotal evidence and survey after survey, a small proportion of schools in the ASK research have increased the number of their TAs.

This week also saw the publication of the school workforce census statistics for 2018, and against what might have been expected, TA numbers have not declined (see summary table below). While TA numbers in secondary settings continue to free-fall (down 3% on 2017), there was a teeny increase of 0.3% in primary and nursery settings, making the overall figures look quite stable. (The number of TAs in special schools, incidentally, is rocketing up).

Table from the DfE Workforce survey
Click to enlarge

It might be tempting, then, for ministers to claim that ‘there have never been more TAs in our schools than now’ (sound familiar?), but this would mask the tensions and difficulties revealed by this new research.

In many respects, the ASK research provides further evidence of long-standing issues relating to TA deployment and the reliance schools place on them to deliver SEND provision. What should concern ministers is that the context in which this is playing out is unlike anything we’ve seen before. In the early part of this century, for example, the government sought to resolve the-then teacher workload, recruitment and retention crisis by increasing the number of support staff. Today, that option seems unrealistic.

The good news is that employing more and more TA is not what schools should be doing anyway. Far better to improve the deployment and practice of our existing TA workforce. There is good evidence of what is more and less likely to work when it comes to TAs, some of which is evident in the ASK research. This evidence has been translated into practical and actionable guidance, and while aimed at school leaders, it’s highly accessible for parents too.

More money would help, of course, but an interesting feature of our work with schools as part of an Education Endowment Foundation-funded project is that it is possible to enhance the practice and contribution of TAs at relatively low cost. A full impact evaluation will be reported next year.

Rob Webster is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Inclusive Education, UCL Institute of Education

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Amy Skipp

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