What is a teaching assistant?

TA and pupil reading
Far from being just an extra person to buy an end-of-term gift for, teaching assistants (TAs) can play an important part in your child’s learning. We explain what their role involves and how they'll help in the classroom.

Teaching assistants may be referred to as a ‘mums’ army’ due to the family-friendly, school hours nature of their job, but their role in the classroom goes far beyond wiping noses and hunting for lost jumpers. Since 2000, the number of teaching assistants (TAs) working in schools in England has trebled, and they play a vital part in primary-school children’s learning. But what does their job involve and how can they help your child succeed at school?

Teaching assistants in primary schools

There’s no statutory requirement for primary schools to employ TAs. From Reception upwards, the law simply says that there must be one teacher for every 30 children. Nursery classes have different rules, and need one adult for every 13 children (usually a TA or nursery nurse as well as the main teacher). But although schools don’t have to employ TAs, many do, with almost 250,000 full-time-equivalent TAs currently working in English schools.

What do teaching assistants actually do?

TAs have two main roles: supporting children’s learning, and supporting the main class teacher. In primary schools, their duties include:

  • Setting up equipment and helping to prepare the classroom for lessons, tidying up afterwards and helping with displays.
  • Providing support to children who need additional help with their work.
  • Helping pupils develop independent learning skills, manage their own learning and prioritise their time.
  • Providing one-to-one and small group support to children who need it.
  • Listening to children read.
  • Helping the teacher with their marking and record-keeping.
  • Looking after children’s pastoral needs, including dealing with playground accidents and caring for children who are upset.
  • Helping with school trips, events and outings.

Some TAs have a specific area of responsibility: for example, they might be employed to help children with their literacy or numeracy, to teach a foreign language or to work with pupils who have special educational needs.

Although TAs will often supervise a class if the teacher is temporarily unavailable, they shouldn’t be used as substitute teachers as a matter of course – for example, if the regular teacher is off sick, the school should arrange cover from a qualified teacher. However, TAs who have qualified as higher level teaching assistants (HLTAs) are allowed to teach classes on their own, cover the teacher’s absences and give the teacher time to plan and mark children’s work by taking some lessons.

What qualifications do TAs need?

Despite their key role in supporting children’s learning, TAs don’t need any formal qualifications, although schools or local authorities may have their own requirements. As a minimum, TAs need to have good standards of literacy and numeracy, and good organisational skills. They will usually have had experience of working with children, although this might not have been in a school environment.

Once in position, TAs are usually sent on an induction course, and most will also be offered extra continuing professional development by their school – for example, TAs might be sent on courses on working with children with special educational needs, or on supporting children with English as a second language.

HLTAs have to have a nationally recognised qualification in literacy and numeracy, and take a three-day HLTA preparation course. They then undergo a half-day assessment based in school before being awarded the qualification.

The pros and cons of TAs

TAs are often a real asset in the classroom. Teachers say that TAs help to reduce stress and work pressures, and keep disruption to a minimum. Parents, too, often sing the praises of TAs. ‘Tia’s TA helps the teacher concentrate on the less able, but also on pushing the more able ahead,’ says Dimal Patel, dad to Tia, Year 2. ‘I don’t think Tia would be succeeding as well as she is without her TA encouraging her in curricular and non-curricular activities.’

Johanna Haworth, whose daughter is also in Year 2, agrees. ‘Ava is very shy and doesn’t talk much in groups, but the TA has built her confidence up and she is starting to join in,’ she explains. ‘She also monitors my daughter’s food as she has coeliac disease, and went away and researched it so she was better informed. TAs are so valuable and are definitely educators too.’

Surprisingly, though, recent research by the Institute of Education shows that pupils who are supported by TAs make less progress than other children with similar needs. These baffling findings are attributed to the fact that TAs – who often have limited training – are often allocated to children with complex educational needs, which reduces their contact with the qualified teacher.

To combat this problem, it’s recommended that TAs shouldn’t be used as substitute teachers for lower-ability children. Instead, they should support teachers to spend more time with these children. They should also receive more training, and be given time to meet with the teacher to prepare for lessons and discuss pupils’ learning, for example by joining teachers in their PPA time and being given detailed lesson plans in advance so they’re best placed to support every child in the class.