Your idea of the role of a teaching assistant (TA) or learning support assistant (LSA), as they are often called, may well be nothing more than the phrase 'mum help'. Certainly if you went to school before, say, 1995 and have no children currently working through the UK education system, you may have little or no knowledge of what special educational needs really are, or how they fit into the current school system. But if you are considering becoming a teaching assistant, wondering what one will do for your child or looking at the two words on a CV, you can read this Entry to find out what a demanding and complex job it really is.
Special Educational Needs
The phrase 'Special Educational Needs', or SEN1, may sound like a clumsy euphemism for 'thick', but it covers a wide range of problems. Its apparent ambiguity allows for the fact that it is increasingly understood that many students struggle not because they are what would once have been regarded as stupid, but because of their diverse learning styles. It is much more well-known now, for example, that students with dyslexia can have their (often above average) intelligence masked by a learning preference that does not lean towards traditional written learning and, indeed, that autistic children might well outstrip their teachers in terms of their knowledge, but struggle with the structure of classroom learning.
The basic criterion to encompass such a diversity of learning difficulties is that the student is not making 'adequate progress'2, although there are other markers such as a vast difference between National Curriculum levels (if a child is at level 5 for English and maths, for example, but Level 3 for science) and in the initial stages getting a student on to the SEN register is not too difficult. If the student's needs prove more complex, it is often necessary to seek help from outside agencies or funding for the student, which is when Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCOs) often find themselves struggling to fit students with complex problems into one of the requsite pigeonholes needed to obtain outside help. Money can be spent on things such as resources or equipment, but usually it is used to pay for a teaching assistant.
While it is still possible to become a teaching assistant without any formal training, there are now several ways to gain qualifications for the position — either in order to start the job or to develop within a job that you already have. One course that has been available for a number of years is the Certificate for Literacy and Numeracy Support Assistants, or CLANSA. There are also Level II and Level III GNVQs that can be taken in teaching assistancy The Government has also launched the Higher Level Teaching Assistant qualification, which will be explained further below. You will also have to pass a Criminal Records Bureau Check3 to ensure you are safe to work with children.
The practial demands made of a teaching assistant are, potentially, many and varied. HLTAs are seen as controversial by teachers and TAs alike because of the perception that they are basically low-paid teachers. The HLTA website mentions lesson-planning and subject specialism among the roles for an HLTA, but the issue of a more advanced wage is somewhat vague.
In terms of what TAs do, while there are issues of taking lessons and registration periods, administering exams4 and various administrative duties, the most important aspect is still classroom support. In practice, this means:
- Persuading students to pay attention to their teacher and stay in the room.
- 'Differentiation', which means explaining what the teacher has said to students who find comprehension difficult.
- Motivating the students who, for whatever reason, just can't be bothered.
- Supporting students who have difficulty recording their work.
- Being possibly the only adult the teacher has talked to all day.
There will be other jobs, such as helping with group work and maintaining good behaviour5, but the most fundamental aspect will be supporting the student you are specifically allocated to with their particular difficulty and, frequently, helping the teacher understand their needs. Remember, a teacher has as many as 30 students four or five times a day and may struggle to keep up with the complex needs of all of them. Teaching assistants can also be placed in classrooms for general support, with no focus on any particular student but with a broader remit to support the teaching of the entire class and the sanity of the teacher.
A Note for Parents
You may have many preconceived notions, for better or for worse, if you are told that your child will be supported by a teaching assistant. Ignore them. It is ridiculous to try and judge the validity of the individual with sweeping generalisations. You may find that your child receives a couple of hours of support from various different teaching assistants. However, if your child is, for example, autistic, they may receive as much as 20 hours (or even more) over a fortnight. In this instance, it is worth asking whether this time will be given over to one person (don't be surprised if it isn't — SEN timetabling is very tricky) and maybe even asking if you can meet your child's TA. No individual is perfect and there are no guarantees, but allocating a teaching assistant to your child can be immensely benefitial and have a hugely positive affect on their education. Don't discount it.