With children back at school, teachers and support staff are rightly focusing on helping students to catch up on the work they may have missed during lockdown.
But an important balance must be struck to ensure the needs of students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) continue to be met. That’s where teaching assistants can play a vital role.
Teaching assistants, among others, should still be working with SEND students as government funding is set to continue. Department for Education guidance – SEND and specialist settings – additional operational guidance: coronavirus, updated in April 2021, notes that local authorities, which are receiving specific central government support, are expected to pay top-up and other high needs funding to schools and colleges. Meanwhile, the Education and Skills Funding Agency will also continue to pay high needs funding directly to academies and colleges.
But how should teaching assistants be used when it comes to supporting SEND students? As Natalie Packer, a consultant specialising in special educational needs and school improvement, writes in the Tes: “There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to deploying support staff in the current situation […] and leaders will need to make decisions based on a secure understanding of their school context, staffing situation and, most importantly, the needs of their pupils.”
Catherine Berwick, Inspiration Trust lead for SEND, who is also assistant principal and special educational needs coordinator at Jane Austen College, a secondary school in Norwich, has a similar view. She says: “Teaching assistants are a valuable resource in schools. To make sure they have the maximum impact, it’s important that both they and the teachers they work with are highly trained. It’s important to review the deployment of teaching assistants annually, to ensure that your approach fits the evolving needs of your pupils with SEND.”
Challenges facing SEND pupils
On the ground, Perry Newbury, a teaching assistant with 15 years’ experience in a variety of academic areas, supports SEND students aged 11 to 16 at Jane Austen College. He talks about the difficulties SEND students often grapple with: “Throughout my career, I have seen the challenges that pupils with SEND face in a modern mainstream high school – it’s my job to try to support them and make sure they have access to the best education possible. Challenges include the large size of classes, which can sometimes mean students who are struggling in class can remain hidden. Students with SEND can also be reluctant to ask for help, as they feel that it highlights them as being ‘different’. I think it’s important to have high expectations of all students, but I’m aware that some students who have SEND may find these expectations difficult to reach. I work hard to make sure they don’t feel left behind in the educational process.”
Working with teachers
For Newbury, complementing the work of teachers is a key component of supporting students. He says: “I feel the most important part of my role is how we, as teaching assistants, work with class teachers. Our role enables the class teacher to focus on their primary role whilst we work with individuals or small groups to reinforce learning and – with our additional knowledge of the individual students and their SEND need – we can pass on the information which enables the class teacher to help that learner more effectively.”
It’s also important that enough time is allocated to make communicating with teachers possible. He explains: “Over the course of a week, I could be working with 12 or more different members of staff. Organisation is key – I find it really helpful when teachers share schemes of learning and lesson plans with us so that we can plan how we will provide support to students with SEND.”
Classroom and emotional support
The tasks Newbury might undertake with a pupil include scribing for them (which involves writing down a pupil’s dictated response in a test or other activity if they have problems with writing), providing spellings discreetly on a post-it note or breaking down instructions into manageable chunks. “We also offer support out of the main lesson – this can take the form of emotional support and encouragement to enable a student to refocus,” he states. During periods of lockdown, this type of assistance came to the fore, with the emphasis being on pastoral support, giving him greater insight into the pupils’ backgrounds. He says: “We have more contact with families and students at home. I feel that I have got to know the students and their home lives in far more depth.”
Building independence and confidence
Effective teaching assistant support can lead to a number of benefits for SEND students. It can mean there is someone they can turn to who understands their needs and who knows how best to help them overcome challenges. Teaching assistants can be a first point of contact for a child who feels unable to approach a teacher with a problem, and they can act as advocates for pupils who need that kind of help.
Staff can reap rewards too, claims Newbury: “The positives are getting to understand in more depth the student and how they see the world. It is fantastic to follow your year group through their entire time at school, seeing them grow and develop in independence and confidence.”
Teaching assistants’ work with SEND students can be bolstered by the increasing professionalisation of the role. There are now more opportunities to undertake continuing professional development programmes that aim to build teaching assistants’ knowledge and skills.
Key attributes of a good SEND teaching assistant
So what do you need to be an effective SEND teaching assistant? Newbury believes that adaptability, patience, and empathy are key qualities. He adds: “You need to be able to understand how students with SEND might see the world and what their concerns and worries might be, especially in what is currently an unsettled and uncertain time in their lives.”
For further information, visit Whole School SEND and Education Endowment Foundation’s guidance on making best use of teaching assistants.