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Teaching assistants: Support in action

Introduction

Unit image

Teaching assistants, and similar learning support staff, are a substantial part of a workforce that spans the public sector. They are sometimes referred to as ‘paraprofessionals’ – workers who supplement and support the work of qualified professionals. We would argue, however, that teaching assistants have a distinct professionalism themselves which often overlaps with and which is comparable to that of teachers. Since first being introduced into in the 1960s as ‘aides’, ‘helpers’ and ‘auxiliaries’, teaching assistants have become essential to children’s learning in primary schools across the UK and further afield. Whatever your learning support role in schools may be, you are part of this historic development.

For convenience, we have adopted the generic term ‘teaching assistant’ throughout this unit. We use these words in preference to ‘TAs’, which, we feel, is reducing of status. ‘Teaching assistant’ is currently the preferred term of government but there are many others in use across the UK. We therefore use ‘teaching assistant’ to refer to the various kinds of volunteer and paid adult (other than qualified teachers) who provide learning support to primary aged children in the UK.

A central feature of the teaching assistant workforce is its considerable diversity – in terms not only of titles and linked responsibilities but also of previous experience, formal qualifications, in-service training opportunities, ways of working and skills for carrying out support work. The recruitment of paid assistants and volunteers has brought into schools a range of adults in addition to qualified teachers, with much to offer children. Their work enhances children’s experience of learning in school. This unit aims to reflect this diversity and to encourage you to think about your part in the many roles that teaching assistants can play.

One interesting feature of the teaching assistant workforce is the extent to which it is overwhelmingly female. Why are women, especially many who are mothers, drawn to this work, and why are there so few men? This is one of the themes you will explore in this unit.

As with teachers and their work, teaching assistants require many skills for working with children, and there is often more than one way of being effective. Later in this unit we examine the approach of one teaching assistant, Caroline Higham, and consider how she collaborates with a class teacher and brings her distinctive practice to a maths lesson.

Teaching assistants are a very significant and essential resource in primary classrooms, so much so that it is hard to imagine how schools could manage without them.

This unit is an adapted extract from the Open University course E111 Supporting learning in primary schools [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

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