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Do TAs make an impact?

  • Do TAs make an impact?

Spending time and money on an intervention might improve pupil progress, but could more be achieved with the same resources? We should take pains to make sure, says Kevan Collins...

I’ve worked in English education for three decades, and believe schools today are more open to new ideas than ever before. They are embracing technology, adopting new strategies to engage parents and adapting the curriculum in extraordinarily diverse ways.

It’s exciting to see schools trying new ideas but in order to be genuinely useful this creativity and innovation must be accompanied by research and evaluation.

New ideas need to be properly evaluated so we know whether they work and how they compare to alternatives. Buying an iPad for every pupil may increase engagement, but schools need to measure whether that enthusiasm translates into improved outcomes and how cost effective it is.

These outcomes should be judged against the status quo and alternative interventions. If a small group tuition programme increases engagement to the same extent as an iPad but for considerably less expense, surely we need to take this into account in our assessment of the iPad as a successful intervention?

The organisation I work for, the Education Endowment Foundation, was established in 2011 to systematically research and evaluate some of the ideas being pursued by schools today. Its mission is to break the link between family income and educational achievement through evidence-based research. Since its launch, the EEF has awarded £37.4 million to 72 projects working with over 500,000 pupils in over 2,300 schools across England.

We work by identifying projects, teaching methods or other interventions that seem to show promise in raising the attainment of children eligible for free school meals. Working with schools, researchers and project providers, we then fund and co-ordinate rigorous evaluations of these projects. As an independent organisation, we ensure trials are carried out transparently and impartially – every one of our evaluations is independently peer-reviewed to ensure our reports offer rigorous, high-quality findings.

In February we published our first set of results from six of the trials we have been running. In addition to providing information about the effectiveness of individual projects, these results highlighted new information about how teaching assistants (TAs) are used in schools.

We know from existing research that many schools have struggled to train and support TAs in ways which benefit pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Two of our studies suggested promising ways to change that, demonstrating that TAs can improve literacy and numeracy skills when deployed well.

The findings on TAs’ impact on literacy came from a study of Switch-on Reading, a 10-week programme of one-to-one sessions for pupils in Year 7 who did not achieve Level 4 in literacy at the end of primary school.

Three hundred and eight pupils, across 19 schools, took part in a randomised controlled trial (RCT) of the programme. Pupils were randomly assigned to follow the Switch-on approach or to continue with normal lessons. This element of ‘randomness’ was crucial to avoid the possibility of selection bias that can compromise evaluations. The reading levels of both groups of pupils were tested before and after the trial and the difference in progress calculated.

By using an RCT we were able to discover that, on average, pupils achieved an additional three months’ progress as a result of participating in the programme. Students eligible for free school meals and those previously struggling with reading made even greater additional progress.
An evaluation of Catch Up Numeracy, a scheme of one-to-one support for pupils aged from six to 11, also demonstrated the potential of one-to-one support from Teaching Assistants on maths outcomes. It was trialled with 324 pupils in 54 schools over 30 weeks. Three groups were compared: one in which the pupils continued with normal lessons, one in which they participated in the programme, and one in which they were given one-to-one attention without Catch Up.

The study found that both Catch Up Numeracy and one-to-one attention led to significant gains in learning, an average of three and four months’ additional progress respectively, compared to continuing with normal lessons. However, there was little evidence that the Catch Up approach provides additional gains over and above those from one-to-one teaching itself. It was only by structuring the study with three comparison groups that it was possible to generate such useful information.

These studies demonstrate that some of the new ideas being used in schools can substantially improve outcomes for children. By properly evaluating them we can identify which ideas are worth pursuing and share this information amongst all schools. By working together we can translate innovative ideas into practical outcomes that raise attainment.

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Pie Corbett