[Mr George Howarth in the Chair] — Teaching Assistants

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:18 am on 18th March 2014.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education) 10:18 am, 18th March 2014

So much damage has been done by the Government that we need to attend to that first and reconstruct something from the vandalism undertaken by Ministers immediately following the election. I said it at the time, and I will repeat it now: that was one of the most short-sighted, mean-spirited decisions undertaken by the Government when they came to power. So committed are they to a market ideology that they could not see the value or usefulness to school leaders, governors, leaders of academy chains and others of having a reference point for job descriptions and the work being undertaken, so as to enable a judgment to be made about a job’s value. The ludicrous but sadly real example read out by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston of a teaching assistant being employed on different terms from someone else while undertaking the same job is a good demonstration of the problem.

Let us combine that decision with the Government’s deregulation of teaching, whereby they are saying that people now need no qualifications whatever to become a teacher in a state school. There are all sorts of jobs out there for which people require qualifications, including working for McDonald’s, but under the Government’s right-wing deregulation of the teaching profession, people do not need any qualifications whatever to teach in our schools.

In answer to criticism of that policy, the Government cite individual examples of people without teaching qualifications who teach in private schools. There are a few things to be said about that. One is that it is not the individual example that counts, but the impact over time of deregulating the system and allowing unqualified teachers into the classroom on the quality of teaching and on the teaching profession. Over time, as we have seen in Sweden, the results of that kind of deregulatory, right-wing approach are disastrous, with schools failing and being closed down. As for private schools, the Minister never mentions that of the 50% of private schools inspected by Ofsted because they are non-association schools, 13% were found to be inadequate in the previous Ofsted inspection report, published in December. Those are the sorts of schools she seems to be suggesting we should follow.

Taken together, those mixed messages are causing a real sense of uncertainty within our schools. We therefore want clarity from the Minister today. What is the Government’s vision for the future of teaching assistants and support staff in our schools? Are there plans to axe them, as hinted by sources in the Department for Education in that Daily Mail article last year? Will she clear up the position once and for all today, and give us a clear message on the future for teaching assistants?

Hon. Friends have talked about the debate and controversy since the publication of the Reform report last year. That report has been used by some—including, it would seem, people briefing on behalf of Ministers and the Treasury—to say that we should reduce the number of teaching assistants in our schools.

Recently we have also had a helpful report from the Education Endowment Foundation, an organisation that has received an endowment from the Government—a positive policy that we fully support. Its recent report concluded that teaching assistants can improve literacy and numeracy skills when they are deployed well. Those conclusions came from a series of controlled tests; I will not go into the details, but the foundation used a group of reports based on trials in 238 schools, giving us a major new source of independent evidence to help schools use teaching assistants to narrow the gap—the professed aim of the Government and the Opposition.

It is important to pay attention to the evidence, positive or negative, rather than simply cherry-picking it. When we look at that evidence, the conclusions are interesting. The Times Educational Supplement has recently looked at what the Education Endowment Foundation has produced, and said:

“Children struggling with reading and maths make significant progress when given as little as 30 minutes’ individual attention a week by a teaching assistant, research has revealed.

Primary school students who received two 15-minute maths sessions a week made three months more progress over the course of a year than their classmates, according to a study published today by England’s Education Endowment Foundation”.

The foundation has made a useful contribution to the debate by publishing its research.

The Education Media Centre recently made an interesting assessment of research around this issue, which shows that there are concerns about how teaching assistants are deployed in our schools. That is the key issue: we need to get away from the question of whether we should have that kind of support within our schools and on to the issue of how teaching assistants are best deployed for maximum impact. The way that Reform—it has an agenda, to be honest—used the research last year, and was backed up by sources purporting to speak on behalf of Ministers, was pretty disgraceful. It was used simply as a way of saying that we need to get rid of the support that is available through having teaching assistants in our schools, rather than looking at what works when we deploy them.

In the Education Media Centre’s recent article, which can be found on its website, the following point was made:

“Therefore, schools must make interventions, delivered by properly trained TAs, part of a coherent, integrated package of learning for those falling behind…On the basis of the available evidence, it can be argued schools must fundamentally rethink how they use TAs and ensure they add value to teachers, not replace them.

We need to make sure TAs are not given primary responsibility for pupils in most need and are used in ways to allow teachers to spend more time with these pupils.

Allied to this is the need to develop what we might call an improved teaching method for TAs: a way of interacting with pupils using effective styles of questioning to promote and support independent learning.

Finally, we need to guarantee time for teachers and TAs to liaise and seriously invest in TAs’ professional development.”

The conclusion that I and most hon. Members here have drawn from the evidence is that we should get away from a debate about cutting away swathes of teaching assistants, which is what we were hearing last year, and get on to a debate about what works, as shown by the evidence. The evidence clearly shows that teaching assistants have a discrete role that needs to be supported by professional development. It would be a great benefit if the Government could indicate their support for teaching assistants by putting in place once more a proper negotiating body for support staff, so that they feel that they are valued and there is a future for them. That would also be of great assistance to schools.

The evidence shows that teaching assistants work best when they are allowed to perform their discrete role and are given the support to do so, rather than being used simply as a way of covering lessons or filling in holes. We would welcome the Minister giving us a clear message today on these questions. What do the Government think the future role is for teaching assistants? What will they do to enhance that role and give assurance to people working in those roles that they have a future? What are the Government doing to promote the best evidence on how teaching assistants are best deployed for the purpose for which they are there—in other words, to help the education of pupils?