‘Compelling evidence’ to make sure £4bn spent annually on TAs is used to improve results

School leaders now have ‘compelling evidence’ to make sure the £4bn spent on teaching assistants each year is used in ways that improve results for pupils, the chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has said today. Sir Kevan Collins’ comments come as the education charity publishes the results of two separate trials that demonstrate how teaching assistants can have a positive impact on learning.

Previous research has shown that the ways teaching assistants are traditionally used in classrooms, for example as substitute teachers for low-attaining pupils, do not help learning. With £4bn, or 10% of the education budget, spent on their employment each year, there has been an urgent need to find out how to use them more effectively.

Since 2011, the EEF has funded evaluations of six different teaching assistant-led interventions, with 2,100 children in 148 schools. All of these interventions have supported teaching assistants to deliver structured sessions to small groups or individual pupils. All six evaluations, which include today’s two new results, have found this approach to have a marked positive impact: the programmes resulted in an additional two to four months’ progress for pupils, giving teachers and school leaders solid evidence on the best ways to use teaching assistants in their classroom.

The new reports published today include an independent evaluation of the Nuffield Early Language Intervention, a programme originally developed by a team of researchers at the University of York with funding from the Nuffield Foundation, and adapted by researchers at University College London. The intervention was delivered in the trial by the charity I CAN. In this intervention, teaching assistants were given three days of training and detailed lesson plans so they could lead short, structured sessions, often around everyday topics like ‘time’ and ‘what we wear’, with small groups of nursery and reception pupils. Rewarding the children was an integral feature of each session, from targeted verbal praise to more formal incentives like a ‘Best Listener Award’, given to the child that has listened well in the class. The evaluation found a 30-week programme improved the vocabulary, grammar and listening skills of four and five-year olds by as much as four months.

The EEF-funded trial, evaluated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and NatCen Social Research, tested two versions of the intervention across 34 schools and nurseries: a 30-week programme that started during the final term of nursery and continued during the first two terms of reception year in primary school, and a 20-week programme that ran during the first two terms of primary school. The effect of the 20-week version was slightly smaller, but the pupils still experienced the equivalent of about two months’ additional progress.

Also published today are the results of an independent evaluation of REACH, another intervention led by teaching assistants and designed to improve the reading skills of struggling readers in Years 7 and 8. Two different version of this programme were evaluated by teams from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Ipsos MORI: both versions provided one-to-one sessions with a TA three times a week for 20 weeks.

Based on over a decade of research from the University of York, the REACH intervention combines reading aloud with awareness of the different sound structures of words. In the first version, pupils read aloud while the teaching assistant kept a record of any errors they made; the errors would then form the basis of the rest of the session .The second version followed the same structure but placed a greater emphasis on language comprehension training and the understanding of words.

Both REACH interventions had a positive effect on the reading skills of the pupils in the trial. Pupils receiving the second version of the intervention experienced the equivalent of about six months of additional progress on average. For pupils receiving the first version the figure was slightly smaller at four months additional progress.