Why making the most of TA-led curriculum interventions means pulling out all the stops – Rob Webster.

An ex-colleague was once observing a pull-out literacy intervention for a primary-aged boy. He was working on his understanding of full-stops with a teaching assistant (TA). Later, back in the classroom – despite having ably demonstrated use full-stops in the session – the ex-colleague noticed he was now writing sentences without them. “How come?”, she asked. “Well”, came the innocent reply, “I do my full-stops in the library with my TA”.

Amusing though it might be, this anecdote exposes a problem at the heart of how schools use and manage catch-up programmes for pupils who have fallen behind in their acquisition of the ‘basics’. For some pupils, the carousel of classwork and withdrawal programmes represents, what Jean Gross calls, a ‘lifestyle’.

The prescriptive nature of these programmes – which arrive fully-formed, with pre-prepared lesson plans and resources – means that schools deploy TAs, rather than teachers, to deliver them. This is one reason why, compared with their peers, support from TAs strongly characterises the educational experiences of pupils with special educational needs.

Results recently published on a study funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) add to the evidence showing how pupils make progress in pull-out literacy programmes delivered by trained TAs.

A randomised control trial (RCT) involving 157 Year 7 pupils (across 19 schools) who had not achieved Level 4 English at Key Stage 2 were withdrawn from normal classes for 20 minutes each day, for 10 weeks, to receive one-to-one tuition from a trained TA in Switch-on Reading – an intensive literacy intervention, based on the Reading Recovery. A non-intervention control group of 157 pupils received the programme after the 10-week cycle.

Impact was measured using a standardised test administered at the start and end of the programme. Pupils made an average of three months progress, compared to those in the control group. The design of the study means it is difficult to know to what extent this effect was attributable to Switch-on Reading, and to what extent it was attributable to one-to-one support from a TA. It is unclear, then, whether the effect would have been greater if the programme had been conducted by a teacher – as in Reading Recovery.

In comparison, results from another EEF RCT published at the same time, was set up to decouple the effects of individual TA support and the intervention itself. It found pupils in Years 2 to 6 who received either Catch Up Numeracy (n=108) or an alternative numeracy intervention (n=102) from a TA on a one-to-one basis twice a week also made an average of three months progress, compared to a control group (n=114) that did not receive either intervention. There were few differences between the two intervention groups.

The EEF’s good work influences practitioners. These trials provide evidence on the extent to which (i) one-to-one TA support and (ii) particular intervention programmes affect pupil progress. Such studies, specifically those relating to primary school literacy, by and large, report positive findings. Effect sizes are particularly strong in studies where an experienced and specifically trained teacher has delivered the intervention. Short, regular half-hour sessions, delivered three or more times a week over a set period (a term or half a term) appear work best. According to the EEF’s summary of the evidence on one-to-one tuition (which may or may not involve a specific intervention), there is no strong evidence that this is more effective than paired tuition or intensive small group teaching.

A broader concern about the use of TAs to conduct ‘pull-out’ programmes is evident in research by colleagues and I. Findings from our Deployment and Impact of Support Staff project – the biggest study ever conducted on TA impact – show the more support pupils received from TAs in everyday classroom settings, the less academic progress they made in core subjects over the school year. So, we might logically conclude that gains made in TA-led interventions away from the classroom do not translate into overall annual attainment.

Why might this be? There are indicators in the process evaluations of the EEF trials, revealing common problems with schools’ management of interventions and which can impair impact.

A key issue concerns programme fidelity; how faithfully TAs followed delivery protocols. TAs can adapt programmes in quite fundamental ways; for instance, changing the number and length of sessions delivered each week, and delivering the intervention to groups instead of individuals, as directed.

Timetabling is another common problem. Interestingly, pupils were withdrawn from different parts of different lessons each day for Switch-on Reading, which was disruptive. Pupils reported missing up to 30 minutes of a lesson about four times a week, and they resented being withdrawn from their favourite subjects.

The issue of collateral damage to learning is often overlooked in studies of pull-out interventions. There is a real prospect progress in other curriculum areas is hampered by regular withdrawal and minimum opportunities to catch up on missed coverage.

Other factors likely to inhibit the impact of the interventions include:

• A lack of time for TAs to plan and prepare for sessions, and limited opportunities to liaise with teachers; a finding writ large in the DISS project

• Teacher separation; that is, their limited involvement in intervention planning, delivery and monitoring

• Curriculum separation; the extent to which intervention sessions aligned with literacy teaching in the classroom.

Taken together, these factors create a situation where pupils are left to do the conceptual bridging between learning in and out of the classroom – like the boy in our earlier anecdote.
We know from reviews of the literature that TAs spend, on average, 30-40 minutes per day delivering interventions, so school leaders should not be lulled into thinking that simply deploying TAs to run programmes for which there is a good evidence base obviates the need for the more fundamental reform of their role.

When interventions are something of an adjunct to the curriculum, the valuable contribution TAs make gets undermined. If we are to capitalise on their contribution, schools must make interventions part of a coherent, integrated package of learning for those falling behind. Full-stop.

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Alborz, A. et al. (2009) The impact of adult support staff on pupils and mainstream schools. London: HMSO
Farrell et al. (2010) The impact of teaching assistants on improving pupils’ academic achievement in mainstream schools: A review of the literature, Educational Review, 62(4), pp. 435–448