Free CPD for TAs

On-line support and advice for Teaching Assistants

Helen Bilton is Professor of Outdoor Learning at the University of Reading, which now offers free on-line Professional Development for both Primary and Secondary TAs. Here she looks at four key ideas for Teachers and TAs to consider as they work together in the classroom.

Do teaching assistants make a difference?

I have no doubt that the presence of a great TA in any class can make a real difference to a child’s learning. However, the research does not necessarily support this view: a study by Webster, Russell and Blatchford in 2013 concluded that: ‘pupils receiving the most TA support made less progress than similar pupils who received little or no TA support- even after controlling for factors likely to be related to academic progress and allocation of TA support (eg: prior attainment and SEN status)’.

This may surprise you, but what the research also reported is that with a good understanding of what they need to do and proper training, teaching assistants can make a real difference to children. In the UK, with funding cuts, schools struggle to give the necessary support to their TAs working alongside pupils, while in international schools, you often have to wait for an overseas trainer to visit the school.

So how can teachers get the most out of the relationship with their support staff or indeed with any adult in the classroom who has come into ‘help’. And what can support staff do to the help children learn?

Free online courses form the University of Reading

To start people thinking about how to make a difference in the classroom as teaching or learning assistants in class, the university has created two online courses on its  FutureLearn platform for primary and secondary assistants.

At the heart of our courses are four key ideas for TAs:

  • Developing their own self-understanding
  • Thinking about the children themsleves
  • Reflecting on the learning environment in which they are working
  • How language is being used in that environment.

In a nutshell, this is the advice:

1. Understand yourself

Everyone has a set of values or beliefs. These are formed over time and are moulded by family, friends and life experiences. We tend to carry our set of values around with us and measure what is happening to us against this set of values. Someone drops litter, one person will get very angry, another will not be bothered. A bag of values is taken into school by everyone working there, and you have to be aware of what they are. However, the school itself will also have a clear set of values too which have to respected.

I am a researcher of outdoor play, and I am often having to challenge peoples’ values because they are frightened to let children have a go in case ‘something happens’. I have to get them to appreciate the value to children of making mistakes and facing challenges.

To be an effective TA or learning support assistant, you therefore need to have a good look at your own values and make sure that they have a place within the value system of the school.

2. Understand the children:

Working in a school day in day out, you can forget how hard learning is. Adults can write, and we can read; we can express our feelings verbally. But children, even the older ones are still developing and need to practise these simple things every day. So just because we can do something doesn’t mean a child will be able to master it instantly. Try writing with your non -dominant hand. How hard is that?!

Every day, children are having to deal with so many new concepts and skills. We need to be patient and actually spend time asking them how they are finding things. A 10 minute conversation with a child just asking them about how they are feeling about x can help that child far more than removing them because they are not able to cope in the classroom.

3. Understand the learning environment

When planning we can get very caught up in what has to be done, literacy, numeracy, French or physics. As one very perceptive TA put it: ‘There is an assumption that you should just know. You’ve come into a classroom, you listen to the 20 minutes of teaching, and from that-if you didn’t know, you should know now. And then you’ve to feed it to the children’. But there is so much more to consider when thinking about learning. How time, the space, the resources and the people are organised and managed can be the difference between effective learning and no learning. For example, where a child sits can impact how they behave. If they tend to sit at the back they may do that as they don’t feel engaged or capable of engaging. They have to be moved to be close to you.

How teachers deploy teaching assistants and what they ask them to actually do is crucial to successful learning. One of the main findings from the research is that TAs think that their time is best used in task completion, whereas understanding how a child completes a task, identifying what the misunderstandings are and what they can and cannot do are what a teacher really needs to know to enhance learning. These are the areas in which TAs can make a real difference.

4. Think about language and ask the right questions

Almost all teaching and learning involves the use of language, whether speaking, listening, reading and writing. We have to be language specialists, asking the right questions carefully to elicit appropriate answers. And yet many children find language acquisition difficult. According to The Communication Trust, ‘In the UK, over 1 million children and young people – that’s 2 – 3 in every UK classroom – have some form of long term and persistent speech, language and communication difficulty.

‘This can affect them early, severely and for life’ ( So, it’s important to ask children the right questions. ‘What is global warming?’ elicits a totally different answer from ‘What might be the solution to global warming?’

However, unless we plan for the answer, we cannot ask the right question. TAs, like teachers need to know what questions to ask, and to be reassured that task completion is not the success criteria for a task.

Help is at hand

To find out more about sign up to a free four week course with FutureLearn/University of Reading here:


Dr. Helen Bilton

Helen is an award winning lecturer with an international reputation for her work on the outdoor teaching and learning environment. She is a passionate and inspirational teacher and a sought after keynote speaker.



Feature Image: congerdesign from Pixabay

Other images: Pixabay


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