Thomas Diamond Writes: Why We Must Save Our Teaching Assistants
In the last couple of years, teachers have received noteworthy pay rises, albeit after years of real term pay decreases when inflation and pension contributions are factored in. However, these pay increases have been largely unfunded by the government, leaving schools to pick up the tab. Along with other cuts that have devastated schools, this has inevitably led to support staff being let go. This is the equivalent of giving pay increases to doctors but funding it by sacking all the nurses.
As a primary school teacher, I know how vital teaching assistants (TAs) are in our profession. Having a well-trained, effective TA in the class can greatly enhance the children’s learning. A good TA will make sure each and every student has the support they need for their lessons, playing an integral role in boosting the lower ability pupil, challenging the higher ability pupils and improving the wellbeing for vulnerable children. Working with the lower ability pupils ensures that they can meet the learning objective and make progress towards their targets, even if they find the subject material challenging. This subsequently improves the confidence and ability of the children and ensures there are less gaps in their knowledge in future years. Likewise, a TA can challenge children, teaching them to reason, problem solve and write with purpose and impact; skills which are essential for the modern workplace.
Increasing wellbeing is often seen as the least important of these three roles but I find this problematic, and I have first-hand experience of this at a school I previously worked at. I had an autistic child in my class who, while perfectly academic, needed assistance with communicating with other children and carrying out even simple organisation tasks. Having a 1:1 TA has meant he was happy and felt safe in class. Even if his wellbeing was not seen as important enough to warrant extra support, his insecurity would clearly be a barrier to learning. This extra support has also been used to help him begin to form bonds with his peers, a skill which will be vital for his future careers, relationships and daily life.
With the positive impact a TA can have on the class being impossible to quantify or demonstrate graphically, it seems that they have been deemed poor value for money. A child who is struggling to read and write may still be well behind their peers, even with extra support, but that does not mean that they have not learnt key skills that would be essential for adult life. I am living testimony to this being true.
I grew up with significant special educational needs. Had I gone to school a few years earlier, I would likely have been left to fail. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to have been brought up under a Labour government which markedly increased school funding. A TA spent a lot of time with me, implementing a personalised curriculum. If it were not for this, I would have not learnt to read, write or integrate with society. Yes, this must have cost the taxpayer a fair bit of money in the short term. However, in the long term, I would argue that money was saved through this strategy. Had I not gained these vital skills, there is a strong likelihood I would be unemployed, costing the taxpayer a significant amount in benefits. Unable to communicate with my peers, I would have also found myself socially isolated. With my supportive family, I would probably have avoided taking a more negative path and ending up in prison, but this is not something afforded to many pupil with special educational needs. I certainly would not be the net-contributing taxpayer and teacher I am today if it were not for this TA support.
Nevertheless, we see declining numbers of TAs in our schools year after year. Children who have far more complex special educational needs are given little additional support. At times I have taken extra intervention sessions after school, something which has seen brilliant results. However, even if all teachers were able to do the same, this would be no replacement for having permanent, effective TAs.
With teacher stress through the roof, this could also see an exodus of teachers leaving the profession. Seeing as the large pay rises, which were funded by these cuts, were intended to increase teacher retention, this move seems rather counterintuitive. Stress is already the number one reason why teachers leave, something that many of my colleagues from other schools have elected to do.
Most people don’t know this but funding for special educational needs comes mostly from local councils, not central government. County council elections are merely weeks away. If you want to save our schools, vote Labour on Thursday May 6th.
Vice Chair (Campaigns)