Recently my colleague, Luke Rolls, co-edited Reimagining Professional Development in Schools (Routledge, 2020), the second book in a new series inspired by the vision of our school to truly connect research with practice. In the first chapter (Rolls and Hargreaves, 2020), the authors share the endurance and courage of a cross channel swimmer, Sarah Thomas, as a metaphor for the challenges that educators face each day. Sarah swam the English Channel four times without stopping. This unbelievable feat is compared to the ‘wavy seas’ of education and the challenges that educators, both teachers and teaching assistants, overcome to teach each child every day and every school week of the year. They comment that educators’ ‘true stories are usually invisible, untold and unmeasured’. This is not the case, though, of the professionals mentioned in the Reimagining Professional Development book and in this article; stories that must be heard in order to change the deficit narrative so common in our education profession. The unusual thing about this book is that TAs are mentioned as central partners in the work of schools and Chapter 9 was actually co-written by me, a teaching assistant. One thing I know for sure is you can only write about continuing professional development if you have actually experienced it. Unfortunately, so many of my teaching assistant colleagues in other schools say they are not included in professional learning because of school budget constraints. With a population as big as Iceland (UCL, 2020), the teaching assistant community represents a vast resource that needs to be mobilized to support teachers and school leaders if we are serious about realising the ambitions we all have for our children.
This is a great opportunity for me to describe how one school, The University of Cambridge Primary School (UCPS), is rewriting the narrative of continuous professional development for all educators, including TAs. Our story goes back to the end of a very busy term in December 2018, when our Head Teacher, James Biddulph, shared with us a quote from Maya Angelou: ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better’. With the words of Dr Angelou replaying in my head and thoughts of the newly founded Chartered College of Teaching (which was founded to support leaders and teachers), I approached Dr Biddulph and Dame Alison Peacock to ask about establishing a Teaching Assistant Twilight Network of professional development. However these twilight sessions would not be exclusively for Teaching Assistants (TAs). They were open to anyone who was willing and able to engage with research informed and practitioner professional development.
Dreams came to fruition on the 22nd March 2018 when we welcomed Nancy Gedge to UCPS. Nancy had recently released a book, Inclusion for Primary School Teachers (2016) and had developed impressive practices that included all children. It was great to welcome many educators from the local area to our first session. Nancy was able to share her wealth of inclusive knowledge as a teacher and mother of a child who has special educational needs. These sessions aimed to increase the knowledge and pedagogical practices of teaching assistants in supporting children’s social, emotional and academic development and wellbeing. They also came to represent the beginning of a learning community sharing its collective knowledge, understanding and strategies to support vulnerable children in different settings across Cambridgeshire.
Over the years, schools seem to have fallen into a pattern of over reliance on teaching assistants (Webster, 2019, p. 85) to support children who have been identified as having a special educational need. From my own experience, it is often TAs that constantly support children with additional needs; a practice that does a disservice to both the child and the member of staff. It is somewhat puzzling that while teaching assistants are so rarely mentioned in any government guidance, they are expected to achieve so much. And do so with little professional development support. As teaching assistants, we might question whether we are considered in terms of being babysitters and as ‘extra pairs of hands’ to help the teacher? Or are we, or rather can we be, partners with teachers and school leaders and external experts in education, in enabling the very best learning for all children?
Thanks to a group of researchers, there is a wealth of evidence out there, which suggests the best way to deploy teaching assistants and how to move children from adult dependence to independence. Currently this CPD is being offered to schools via the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants team (http://maximisingtas.co.uk/). At UCPS, we have invested in these CPD opportunities and reaped the rewards: our teaching assistants, who we call Learning Coaches, are empowered with knowledge and skill to support children, and to assist them to be independent learners – no matter what their learning need. Paula Bosanquet is a regular visitor to UCPS and her research informed ‘scaffolding triangle’ (Bosanquet et al, 2016) has become an embedded part of our practice. It is through this support to our Learning Coaches that I believe we shift away from adult-dependent children towards celebrating their independence with them.
In 2019, after the publication of Including Children and Young People with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities in Learning and Life: How far have we come since the Warnock Enquiry-and where do we go next? (Webster 2019), we evolved our approach away from standalone sessions to a more coherent professional development programme. Collaborating with two special schools, one in Cambridge and the other in London, we decided that for the academic year our twilight sessions would concentrate on research informed inclusive practice. Over the year, we welcomed researchers, charities, practitioners and experts, all passionate about advancing a vision of education that would serve all children. To model this aim, they were not the only visitors who attended; parents were also welcomed. One memorable session, led by Matthew Parker who specialises in ADHD, was particularly poignant. Not only did he help the attendees to understand the neuroscience of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and how best to support learners in the classroom, he stayed on to spend a considerable amount of time talking with parents, suggesting how to help their youngsters at home. Another standout session took place one cold evening in November when Liz Elks from ELKLAN drove all the way from Cornwall to provide a short but impactful one hour of professional development. In attendance was a head teacher from a local primary school and her team. Liz’s dedication in sharing her expertise led to 3 of our teachers and 6 Learning coaches going on to complete their level 3 ELKLAN qualification.
In return for the goodwill of others that we have benefited from, we similarly share our professional development programme, which we are able to offer free online for all educators to access (http://unlockingresearch.org/). A small ripple within the wavy sea of education, attempting to help all children, everywhere. The recent release of a hard hitting government report Special educational needs and disabilities Report (2019) suggests that the timing has been prescient. This publication echoed a similar narrative to that of Webster’s book and the CPD session he delivered for us. The report lays out clearly that the number of children with SEND is increasing alongside a corresponding pressure on teachers and schools. And that a lack of training for school staff means, more than ever, schools urgently need expert advice from other professionals (House, 2019 p.17). So how are the government planning on meeting the needs of learners with SEND and a workforce trying their best to educate all children in challenging circumstances? While there has been years of talk and discussion within political debate of the systemic structural issues in SEND provision, this appears to have been accompanied by very little action. Has any insight been sustained since Warnock suggested founding a Research Special Educational Staff College (Warnock, 1978) in the late 70s? A glimmer of hope comes in this most recent report in the mentioning of developing Regional SEND focused training Hubs. A training hub for the future, a hub recognising the contribution made by all of the adults who work in schools, regardless of their title. With the right implementation, therein could be an educational legacy that this government could proudly provide and commit to for children across the country.
What is in no doubt is that educators work tirelessly trying their best to educate and care for the children in their schools. Surely it’s about time, and especially in light of the loss of learning experienced during the global pandemic, that all educators, especially teaching assistants, become viewed as part of the educational process and profession. Fortunately for me, I work at a primary school that offers a different approach and in so doing suggests the possibilities of how much more can be done. Maybe together with my colleagues at school and UCL, we can raise the profile of teaching assistants so that they are professionally recognised for the vital role they play in supporting our future generations.
@UCPSresearch @UniCamPrimSch @adurning15
Bosanquet, P., Radford, J. and Webster, R. (2016) http://maximisingtas.co.uk/assets/content/scaffoldingframework.pdf (Available Online) Scaffolding framework for teaching assistant-pupil interactions [Accessed 19 November]
Hargreaves, E. and Rolls, L. eds., 2020. Reimagining Professional Development in Schools. Routledge.
House (2019), https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201919/cmselect/cmeduc/20/20.pdf (Accessed Online) House of Commons Education Committee Special educational needs and disabilities. First Report of Sessions [Accessed 19 November 2020]
UCL (2020) https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/news/2020/may/maximising-impact-teaching-assistants-rftrw-s01e04 (Available online) Maximising the impact of teaching assistants | RFTRW: S01E04 [Accessed 19 November 2020]
Warnock, H.M., 1978. Special educational needs: Report of the committee of enquiry into the education of handicapped children and young people (Vol. 7212). Stationery Office Books (TSO).
Webster, R. ed., 2019. Including Children and Young People with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities in Learning and Life: How Far Have We Come Since the Warnock Enquiry–and Where Do We Go Next?. Routledge.