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The role of teaching / classroom assistants during the COVID crisis

This project explored the contributions teaching / classroom assistants have made to education during COVID.

The research team conducted a large-scale, national survey of teaching assistants (TAs) working in schools in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland during February 2021, at a time when schools were focused on supporting children’s learning in school and at home during the Winter 2021 lockdown.

The report, Unsung heroes: The role of teaching assistants and classroom assistants in keeping schools functioning during lockdown tells 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. This study was funded by Unison. 

This project built on earlier work undertaken by ILC looking at primary schools' responses to COVID, and helps establish the depth of the contribution that schools have made to supporting pupils and their families during the pandemic.

Project duration: January - March 2021.

Background

Against a background of intense public debate over education during the COVID crisis, and in a context where there is limited research evidence to guide actions, we hope to inform decision-making about how schools can best function while the pandemic lasts and as schools begin to get back to normal. 

The International Literacy Centre (ILC) are conducting this research. UCL Institute of Education is at the forefront of current research to understand how the COVID-19 crisis is impacting on education.

This research is helping set an agenda for change in education going forward. 

Methodology

The project combines a survey of teaching / classroom assistants with a small number of post-survey interviews.

The survey was distributed by UNISON to its members and by the UCL Institute of Education research team to their networks: the survey is now closed, thanks for your interest.

Team

Principal Investigator

Co-Investigators

Collaborators

  • UNISON - funder and collaborating partner
Summary of key findings
  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. 
Recommendations

As schools reopen fully, the report recommends that:

  • staff wellbeing needs to be considered equally along with student wellbeing
  • the government needs to invest in TAs as part of the recovery planning - their knowledge of their school communities means they are well placed to help schools and pupils catch up
  • all staff need to be recognised fully for their contribution to keeping schools functioning during a difficult time. That will aid everyone in the school community continuing to pull together in the days ahead.
Outputs