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We’ve written before about the number of teachers working outside of their subject areas, teaching multiple subjects they have no training in – it’s a growing issue in Britain’s schools, and one which also resonates with the way teaching assistants (TAs) are used in classrooms, all too often deployed in classes with little to no idea of what they are being used for. With budgets squeezing there is increasing pressure on these low-paid support staff to be used in more challenging roles, a move which risks jeopardising the positive impact that TAs can have on academic attainment. There’s even a suggestion that in some schools, teaching assistants are employed as teachers as a result of the ongoing teacher shortage crisis: hardly beneficial for either teacher or student.

Writing in the Times Educational Supplement, former head of the Association of School and College Leaders John Dunford refers to a study on the deployment and impact of support staff based upon discussions with TAs, many of whom suggested they were often placed in classes when “they did not know what was about to happen in the lesson.” It’s not difficult to see how this would make their job particularly tough – how helpful can you be in assisting a class on, say, the history of the Second World War, if you haven’t done a minimum of preparation on the subject?

The matter is complicated by the fact that a great deal of pupil premium funding is spent on TAs, with schools employing TAs to work with disadvantaged students specifically, with little to no analysis of their impact. Needless to say, this is hardly an effective usage of pupil-premium funding, although, as Dunford suggests, it’s an easy way to tick the pupil premium box.

Do TAs have any purpose in classrooms then, given that some tens of millions of pounds are spent on them? The answer is obviously yes, especially in the right context. Dunford points out that there is much evidence that TAs improve pupils’ attitudes and boost teacher morale while reducing stress – a crucial responsibility when one considers the increasing pressure teaching professionals are under. But there is a caveat, the right conditions need to be in place – appropriate training for both TAs and the teachers they are assisting and clear policies in place for the deployment of support staff. As Dunford points out, this needs to come from the top.

In some ways we’d like to see SAM Learning’s role as that of an effective teaching assistant, albeit online rather than in the classroom. By allowing teachers to set homework and revision without having to spend hours preparing it and simplifying the process of monitoring performance, we give teachers the opportunity to focus on the classroom, reducing time spent on less necessary tasks. SAM also works to improve the attitudes of students by encouraging independent learning, helping to improve engagement in even the most difficult and disinterested of students.

Interested in finding out how SAM could be used to assist teachers at your school?