IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Are SEN teaching assistants effective?

To address this gap in knowledge, three successive studies were undertaken by IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society.

Teacher teaching

19 June 2017

By Jason Ilagan.

Changes in policy and curriculum over recent years have seen a large increase in the range and number of teaching assistants (TAs) in schools. Would it then be fair to assume that this has had a positive impact on pupil progress, in particular for those with special educational needs (SEN)?

Relying on existing research alone would have been seen as unreliable as previous findings only provided limited information about impact and processes.

To address this gap in knowledge, three successive studies were undertaken by the UCL Institute of Education:

Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS)

Exploring the types of support staff deployed at schools and their impact on teachers and pupils

Effective Deployment of Teaching Assistants (EDTA)

Developing and evaluating school-based strategies for the effective deployment of TAs in supporting pupils 

Making a Statement Project (MaST)

Addressing a lack of systematic information on what is known about the overall support experienced by pupils with Statements of SEN in mainstream schools

  • The more support pupils received from support staff, the less progress they made (a consistent negative relationship between the amount of support pupils received and their progress in maths, science and English)
  • TAs were more focused on completing tasks than pupils' learning and understanding
  • Support staff allowed for teachers to spend more one-to-one time with pupils, reduced their workload and stress levels, and increased job satisfaction.
  • Preparedness - creating time for teachers and TAs to meet had a positive effect on the quality of TA input and helped make their roles more explicit
  • Deployment - senior leadership teams, as well as teachers thought more strategically about the role and purpose of TAs and expected outcomes for pupils, and how they could add value to teachers
  • Practice - TAs roles developed to support pupils' learning and assessment.
  • Pupils in mainstream schools with SEN statements spent over a quarter of their time away from the mainstream class, the teacher and their peers compared to average attainment pupils
  • TAs had more responsibility for pupils with SEN statements than teachers - curricula, lesson planning, moment-to-moment teaching and learning decisions
  • The quality of pedagogical experiences was less appropriate and of a lower quality than for average attaining pupils
  • Gaps were found in the knowledge of both teachers and TAs in meeting the needs of pupils with statements - teachers felt unprepared and often saw TAs as experts despite similar gaps in training and knowledge
  • Schools lacked effective and theoretically-grounded pedagogy for teaching pupils with statements in mainstream schools - relying on TA support exasperated the problem and made it less likely to formulate appropriate approaches. 

Implications, influence and impact

The three studies have signalled the clear need for change in the way TAs are deployed in schools in order to ensure their effectiveness. Numerous local authorities continue to issue staff guidance referring to the findings of the research.

Education stakeholders not only need to reconsider the deployment of support staff but also their provision for lower-attaining pupils and those with SEN.

DISS was named by the British Education Research Association as one of 40 landmark studies having a significant impact on education in the past 40 years.

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