The value of teaching assistants in the maths classroom

Teaching assistant

To say balancing a school budget is difficult is an understatement. How do senior leaders ensure their decisions reflect best-practice, provide value for money and, most importantly, have a real impact on student outcomes?

How do middle leaders such as department heads ensure that the strategies they implement are evidence-based and will work in their school?

Consulting the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit is one way to inform these decisions. The toolkit is an accessible summary of the international evidence on teaching 5-16 year-olds. Do you want to know the impact school uniform has? Setting or streaming? Homework? How about meta-cognition? Then the toolkit might be for you.

Each school strategy is ranked on three things: the cost to implement; the strength of the research evidence and the impact (in months) the strategy offers. This ranking seemingly gives clear winners and losers. The winners? Feedback and ‘meta-cognition and self-regulation’. The EEF says that both of these offer high impact on students for a very low cost. The loser? Forcing students to re-sit a school year. Very high cost, and a negative impact on students.

As with all meta-studies, the results have to be taken with a pinch of salt, and can at best steer decision makers in their initial thinking before considering what is right for their own school. The toolkit’s findings on teaching assistants, for example, provides interesting reading.

Overall, teaching assistants are found to have a low positive impact for a high cost. But before making any rash judgement, it is worth delving deeper. Firstly, the conclusions are based on relatively limited evidence. In addition, studies that have looked at the impact of teaching assistants do not all agree. The toolkit states:

“Where overall negative impacts have been recorded, it is likely that support from teaching assistants has substituted rather than supplemented teaching from teachers. In the most positive examples, it is likely that support and training will have been provided for both teachers and teaching assistants so that they understand how to work together effectively, e.g. by making time for discussion before and after lessons.

There is also evidence that working with teaching assistants can lead to improvements in pupils’ attitudes, and also to positive effects in terms of teacher morale and reduced stress.”

So how can schools support their teaching assistants? How can departments make the most of having teaching assistants in their lessons? Additional specialist training seems to be the answer.

The toolkit offers a series of questions to consider before implementing any of the strategies it reviews. For teaching assistants, it suggests the following:

  1. Have you identified the activities where teaching assistants can support learning, rather than simply managing tasks?
  2. Have you provided support and training for teachers and teaching assistants so that they understand how to work together effectively?
  3. How will you ensure that teachers do not reduce their support or input to the pupils supported by teaching assistants?
  4. Have you considered how you will evaluate the impact of how you deploy your teaching assistants?

Here at the National STEM Learning Centre, we are proud to offer ENTHUSE bursary-supported, residential CPD for teaching assistants working in secondary mathematics lessons.

“Thank you very, very much. I can't wait to take the ideas and passion you've instilled in me back to my students.” – past participant, 2017

Throughout the four days of training, we look at what good maths teaching looks like and how it can be supported, discover strategies for literacy and numeracy, explore how to identify and resolve misconceptions and develop ideas that cultivate students’ reasoning, problem-solving and resilience.

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