1.6 Growth of the teaching assistant workforce
Between the mid 1990s and 2012, in all four UK countries there was a growth in the number of teaching assistants working alongside teachers in primary classrooms. As we have indicated, the seeds of this development were sown in the 1980s, when support staff were employed to support the inclusion of children with special educational needs in mainstream classrooms. Teaching assistants were recruited to provide individualised help for children. In some areas of the UK, nursery nurses have long worked in nursery and infant classrooms where, it is felt, young children need a higher ratio of adults working with them.
The rapid growth in teaching assistant numbers that began in the early 2000s has introduced new roles, such as learning mentor, HLTA and parent support assistant. Will Swann and Roger Hancock (2003, p. 2) suggested that there had been a ‘dramatic shift in the composition of the primary classroom workforce’. To a large extent, this increase happened because funds were made available through specific government spending programmes across the UK. In particular in England there was a concerted focus on national literacy and numeracy targets in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and funds were made available to recruit teaching assistants to support the one in four children considered not to be progressing as required (Hancock and Eyres, 2004).
Volunteer and paid assistants are therefore part of a significant historical development that is having a far-reaching effect on the organisation of primary education, the experiences that children have in classrooms, and the ways in which children are taught in schools. Reporting on their large scale study, ‘The Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project’, Blatchford et al. (2012) cite government statistics showing a threefold increase in the number of full-time equivalent teaching assistant posts in all mainstream schools in England since 1997 to a total of 170,000 in 2010.This represented 24% of the workforce in mainstream schools overall, and more specifically 32% of the workforce in mainstream nursery and primary schools. Blatchford et al. also found that by 2010 teaching assistants comprised 44% of the primary school workforce in Wales, and 24% in Scotland.