University of Sussex
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A case study of the deployment of teaching assistants in secondary schools to support learning

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posted on 2023-06-08, 22:37 authored by Edwina Slater
This research focuses on the ways in which teaching assistants are deployed to support learning in secondary schools and investigates the effect of the different deployment approaches used. Much of the previous policy and research literature conceptualises the relationship between the teacher, teaching assistant and learner as tripartite and hierarchical - a three-way relationship in which the teacher has the major responsibility for promoting learning. Key debates in the literature include whether teaching assistants make a positive contribution to learning, represent good value for money or have an impact on educational attainment. The lack of consensus provided the impetus for this case study which contributes further to the debate. In this case study, the theorisation of the teaching assistant’s role is grounded in the constructivist theories of Vygotsky and Bruner and, to a lesser extent, of Piaget. The role is also considered in the light of the theories of Bandura, Malaguzzi, Black & William and James et al. In the classroom this means that the learning is not only focused on what the teaching assistant does to support learners but also how learning is supported through the use of specific approaches. The study suggests that some models of deployment allow teaching assistants more scope to work in particular ways which offer more opportunities for learning. Methodologically, the research takes the form of an exploratory case study. The study was completed within the defined boundaries of three schools and seven lessons. Unlike previous studies which have taken predominantly quantitative approaches and provide a focus on the measurement of learners' attainment, this case study takes a wholly qualitative approach in order to focus closely on the interaction between teachers, teaching assistants and supported learners and how particular models of deployment support learning. The case study involved six teachers, seven teaching assistants and fourteen learners from three state comprehensive schools, located in one local authority. Different deployment models were observed. These included the more typical model where teaching assistants were deployed to support individuals, pairs or groups of learners within the classroom or to work in a different location with a small group of learners withdrawn from the class. Also observed was a higher level teaching assistant team teaching with a teacher in the classroom and a ordinary level teaching assistant deployed in managing a learning support facility and working independently from the teacher. Data were collected through a four stage approach that began with joint semi-structured interviews with pairs of teaching assistants and teachers. Joint interviews were followed by lesson observations. Following this, teachers and teaching assistants were interviewed separately in order to obtain their individual perceptions of the learning of supported learners in the lesson. Lastly, group interviews were conducted with supported learners to obtain their views on the support they had received. The different data sources were examined using four perspectives to identify the various ways in which teaching assistants were being deployed and how these supported learning. The case study provided a range of qualitative data from which it was possible to explore the complexities of the relationships between teachers, teaching assistants, and learners and to identify models of teaching assistant deployment which allow them to contribute more fully to learning. The study also highlighted the importance of building professional relationships. It concluded that the lack of planning between teachers and teaching assistants, the unavailability of training for teachers on managing the work of teaching assistants and for teaching assistants on supporting learners, all have a negative effect on support for learning. The learners suggested that they appreciated the academic and pastoral help they were given while also being able to provide examples where learning was over-supported and, therefore, detrimental to intellectual independence. The study, therefore, has implications at different levels - for example, for policy makers and institutions who determine roles, models of deployment and the training and management of teaching assistants when they are working both inside and outside of the classroom.


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  • doctoral

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  • eng


University of Sussex

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