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Support staff and children

In this article you take a closer look at the largest research study of the impact TAs and support staff have within UK schools.

In 2003-2009, the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project conducted the largest research study of the impact TAs and support staff have within [UK] schools, and in this research it was found that: “children who received the most support from teaching assistants (TAs) made significantly less progress than similar pupils who received less support” [1]. The results were surprising for many.

The UK government of 1997-2010, had put a huge emphasis (and funded extensively) on the need for support staff in schools. However, despite this increase in manpower, the results from the study found that without the correct training, guidance and experience, support staff can only be as good as their intuition. Some of the key issues that the research authors found were that often support staff would:

  • Ask closed questions
  • Fill the void by talking too much
  • Not give time to pupils to answer questions
  • Felt that task completion was paramount to everything else

In response to this study, the researchers worked with several schools to develop practice and found that learning improved where support staff considered ‘expansive education initiatives’ or ‘dispositions for learning’. Expansive education is a concept developed by Claxton and Lucas, which views education as more than just passing exams and includes:

  • Developing dispositions which will help children through life
  • Having a broader view of intelligence
  • Seeing education that happens not just in school but everywhere
  • Viewing teachers as teachers and researchers

Dispositions for learning are skills that ensure you’re successful. This can include:

  • Being able to self-regulate
  • Take responsibility for yourself and not blame others
  • To have persistence even in the face of challenges
  • To see the value of cooperation
  • To be constantly enquiring and curious

Staff were given questioning frameworks so they could ask the right sort of questions for the answer they wanted, and children were being supported and given strategies, so they were becoming independent, not dependent on the support staff. Having other adults to support teaching and learning in the classroom is always great, but whatever role you play, you need to be acutely aware of what the teacher requires from you, how you should behave and use lots of resources to aid you in your role.

“Before becoming a TA I had no experience in teaching and this was evident in my role. I would have liked to have known some different teaching techniques, behaviour management strategies and questioning skills. If I would have known some of the above before taking on the role then I would have been able to support the children and class teacher more effectively.” – Helen Brewis
“Support staff are there to make sure the teacher’s vision can be converted into daily practicalities, without support staff school would just be an idea not a reality.” – Bryn Watkinson

In the next Steps, you’ll investigate some of the topics which feature in the DISS project and relate to this Week’s topics’, starting with the importance of asking the right questions. In Step 4.8, you exercised your listening skills where we asked you to use questions that would open a conversation and allow the speaker to talk at length. Did you feel this was easy to do or did it require more practice? How many attempted questions did it take?


  1. Blatchford P., Russell A., Webster R. Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistant: How research challenges practice and policy. 1st ed. Routledge; 2011.
© University of Reading
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Supporting Successful Learning in Primary School

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