Tackling the teaching assistant shortage

Tackling the teaching assistant shortage.

Teaching assistants are in short supply – that’s according to the Skills and Employment Trend Report October 2020, published by the Skills Network. It shows that teaching assistant posts are the most sought after positions in the early years and education sectors – with the number of job postings totalling 40,965 between June and September 2020, almost double the number of teacher positions (23,457).

The pandemic, claims the report, has worsened the crisis in the sector as recruitment activity declined by 60% at its height. The skills that are most in demand are in areas such as the welfare of children and young people, supporting those with autism, as well as child protection and mental health.

In his introduction to the report, Mark Dawe, the Skills Network’s chief executive, highlights the importance of responding to a shift in workplace requirements created by the Covid-19 pandemic and building a workforce with “the resilient skills sought by today’s employers”.

But the shortage is not just about a lack of skills. It’s also about how teaching assistants – of whom there are more than 380,000 in the UK according to Ofsted – are used. Investing in teaching assistants helps to enhance their status and can lead to better staff retention. But not all employers are doing that.

John Dabell, teacher and former school inspector, referencing Ofsted’s work in Making effective use of teaching assistants in the classroom: What we can learn from the research outlines the problem. He says: “… less successful schools do not have good performance management systems in place for TAs: many are poorly trained [and] do not always understand their role.” He continues: “To ensure real, meaningful impact value, teaching assistants must be well deployed and effectively managed.”

The Education Endowment Foundation’s guidance for primary and secondary schools Making best use of teaching assistants, offers some key recommendations. It states that teaching assistants:

  • should not be used informally as teachers for pupils whose attainment is low
  • must add value rather than replace what teachers do
  • need to help children to build independent learning skills
  • should be prepared for their classroom role
  • must offer high quality interventions through one-to-one and small group support
  • should receive support to carry out interventions
  • need to ensure their work builds on classroom work, rather than remaining separate.

In short, teaching assistants’ work should be recognised and professionalised. A group of interested parties – Unison, the National Association of Head Teachers, the National Education Trust, London Leadership Strategy and Maximising TAs – has attempted to do just that by endorsing a set of standards – Professional standards for teaching assistants. The document aims to “help teaching assistants and their colleagues in schools define and understand their role.”

Giving teaching assistants the recognition they deserve is even more crucial during the pandemic, as safety fears loom. A head teacher from a school in the West Midlands commented: “Teaching assistants can often be seen as being there to assist. Sometimes they have no voice. They should feel appreciated and valued, especially at a time like this.”