Teaching assistants on strike

drawing on research by Professor Peter Blatchford, UCL Institute of Education

Teaching assistants in Durham are about to go on strike because their employer Durham County Council has decided to reduce their pay to term time only – a pay cut of up to 23%.

As Unison explains:

93 percent of UNISON members who responded voted for strike action. The ballot was carried out against a backdrop of intimidation by the council which has threatened to sack and re-employ teaching assistants who are UNISON members on a worse deal than those given to other employees.

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Teaching assistants are under threat because of cuts in local authority budgets, but the situation is not improved by clumsy research summaries provided by the EEF Toolkit. It may be coincidental that the Toolkit is also run from Durham, by the CEM unit at Durham University, but it is difficult to imagine that Council officers are unaware of it.

The Toolkit is supposed to provide reliable summaries of research on the most effective ways to use Pupil Premium money. It makes crude comparisons between different kinds of action in a league table. The Toolkit shows teaching assistants as ‘Low impact for high cost’. This summary is seriously misleading, and does not reflect detailed research from England.

It uses a method known as meta-analysis, which averages the benefits from diverse experiments and interventions. In this case, the calculation is that teaching assistants bring about only 1 month extra progress.

Averaging impact figures like this can be really misleading. Some of the research the Toolkit uses shows zero effect, but other projects show it to be very high. Also, the Toolkit’s analysis doesn’t reflect other benefits of teaching assistants, such as taking on administrative tasks or listening to troubled children or simply helping to maintain a calm atmosphere in classrooms.

The most substantial research about teaching assistants in England has been led by Professor Peter Blatchford. His research has indeed revealed that teaching assistants often don’t advance children’s progress but his purpose is to identify problems with how they are used, not to write them off.

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He believes they are often not used to the best effect, and suffer low pay and lack of training. Employers should be trying to make sure teaching assistants are used to the greatest benefit, not trying to cut jobs or reduce them to poverty wages.

Blatchford and colleagues argue that teaching assistants should enhance teaching by fully qualified teachers, not substitute for it. At present, very little of assistants’ time is spent delivering specific curriculum interventions to individuals or small groups, an activity which leads to the greatest progress. Instead, children who are struggling tend to spend more time with the classroom assistant while the teacher concentrates on the rest of the class.

The researchers were able to show, from audio transcripts, that, compared to qualified teachers, teaching assistants’ interactions with pupils were “less academically demanding; had a greater stress on completing tasks; and tended to ‘close down’ rather than ‘open up’ talk linguistically and cognitively.” This indicates a need to boost training, not cut pay.

The researchers argue that assistants and teachers need time to be allocated for joint planning. At present, teaching assistants are often thrown in at the deep end to help in lessons, without any liaison beforehand or feedback on pupils’ learning afterwards. They are constantly having to guess what they should be doing. This has various consequences including:

  • Emphasising task completion rather than learning and understanding.
  • ‘Stereo teaching’ (eg repeating, more or less exactly, teacher talk, moments after teacher has spoken)
  • Providing inaccurate or vague explanations of instructions, processes and concepts.

Peter Blatchford and his colleagues have been involved in a major project to help schools make better use of assistants, published as ‘Making best use of teaching assistants: guidance report’.

Blatchford’s research, and indeed some specific experiments funded by EEF, shows the strong impact of assistants teaching specific skills to individuals for a short period each day.

Research showing very successful initiatives in which experts train teaching assistants to give specific tuition to small groups is referenced in the EEF Toolkit, but it takes time to reach. The danger is that busy heads will simply notice the headline summary ‘low impact at high cost’.

This illustrates the core problem with the ‘meta-analysis’ method of throwing all the available research into a pot and working out an average. The EEF Toolkit’s league table approach is crude and misleading. It will jeopardise the jobs and working conditions of teaching assistants, not improve the education of vulnerable children.

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