Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) Project at Alver Valley Schools

The leadership team were looking at ways to make further improvements on the impact of our support team on outcomes for children. We already knew that our interventions worked having stripped them back and monitored their effectiveness. It was clear from our internal data that children made progress for the very reasons stated in the guidance. For example, we use several online interventions, rapid reader, and rapid phonics, and these have had a positive impact for our children helping them catch up. Learning Support Assistants (LSAs) also liaised with class teachers to ensure that they are linking the intervention to classroom learning.

However, we still felt that there were gains to be made. We were aware of the research by Peter Blatchford and colleagues who were commissioned by the DfE to start a longitudinal study in primary, secondary and special schools looking at the impact of teaching assistants on pupil outcomes. The Deployment and Impact of Support Staff Project (DISS Project), lasting 5 years from 2003-2008 remains the most comprehensive piece of research into teaching assistants in the world to date. The key findings that were a surprise to many at the time of publication found that while Teaching Assistants (TA’s) had a positive effect on teachers’ work load, job satisfaction and levels of stress, their deployment made pupil outcomes worse. Researchers were astonished to find out that even after adjusting for SEN, PP and other groups there was a very strong negative correlation between the amount of TA support a pupil received and the progress they made. The more support, the less progress.

The researchers were clear that the reasons for these poor outcomes originated in managerial decisions about deployment and preparedness, rather than in some deficiency within teaching assistants. Research found that TA’s were overwhelmingly deployed to work either with children who had some kind of special educational need or with children with lower prior attainment. Very often, they acted as a kind of replacement teacher rather than an additional, enhanced provision on top of quality first teaching from the class teacher. It also highlighted that very few TA’s had any meaningful liaison time with the class teacher and they generally learnt what was being taught that day along with the children by listening to the teacher. It is not surprising, then, that under these circumstances, and lacking sustained professional development, TA’s tended to focus upon task completion rather than the actual learning. Following the report the Education Endowment Foundation released guidance for schools to alert them to the pitfalls of poor TA deployment, which we had used in school to begin to make changes.

When we then first heard about the MITA research project from a school governor we were immediately interested due to being familiar with the research regarding deployment outlined above. In addition to this, we had been examining growth mindset research and this had already challenged us to move away from grouping by ‘ability’ and ensuring that flexible learning with differentiated tasks was offered in our classrooms. However, we still had Teaching Assistants sitting next to the children with EHC plans and working with the SEN pupils. Did the very presence of a Teaching Assistant give out the sign ‘I have to sit with an adult, I am unable to be an independent learner’? And were our TA’s focused on task completion? Were our children, like their DISS counterparts, mainly interacting with TA’s rather than other children? How could we bring about change? We were keen to develop our practice and so applied to be part of the MITA project. Alver Valley Schools were selected to be part of the intervention group with Rob Webster as our mentor/consultant, affording us a great opportunity to look at how we could bring about change in our staff and improve outcomes for all our children.

Along with the Executive Head teacher, I (as SENCO and member of the senior leadership team in school) attended a number of training sessions ran by University College London in our local area with a number of other schools. One of the first tasks back in school was to conduct an audit of our staff, and begin conducting observations in our classrooms using the MITA observation sheet. We found the following:

  1. In some areas of the school Teaching Assistants were still ‘velcroed’ next to the children with EHC plans and working with the low attaining pupils – this group of children did not make as much progress and the gap between SEN and non-SEN widened as the pupils were not exposed to the quality first teaching in the classroom or their peers.
  2. Teachers were not deploying their Teaching Assistants effectively. 80% of Teaching Assistants expressed that they entered the classroom ‘blind’ with little preparation for the day or week ahead, planning was not shared nor what the teacher wanted to achieve for individual pupils.
  3. Teaching Assistants interactions were not linked to the learning objectives and focused on task completion.
  4. Teaching Assistants were limiting the learning and progress of all pupils through the quality of TA to pupil talk (closed questioning) and by filling the silence, not giving pupils enough time to think. At Alver Valley this made the pupils dependent/over-reliant on adults, which resulted in many pupils displaying learnt helplessness. One TA said, ‘They rely on us to do the thinking for them.’

The case for change was clear and it was the perfect opportunity to create a clear vision of what Alver Valley School would look like in terms of Teaching Assistants deployment for the pupils, families, teachers and the teaching assistants.

To support the change process we decided to create a work party – a group of early innovators – that would help to lead the project and be champions in bringing about change. It was made up of both teachers and TA’s so we would have a cross section of the staff. Teachers who demonstrated good practice at deploying staff in their classrooms and when observed, and TA’s who were able to instill independence with the pupils they were working with along with the ability to provide feedback to other members of staff, were part of this group.

The preparedness of TA’s was possibly one of the easiest areas to resolve. Teachers were already expected to send their planning to TA’s ahead of time so we introduced a planning session once a week during a whole school assembly which gave teaching staff the opportunity to talk through their plans with members of the team. This gave the opportunity for staff to clarify expectations and ask questions, ensuring everyone felt confident in the learning journey ahead. The planning session did require monitoring, as some found it hard to resist the chance to visit the photocopier or catch up about an individual child!

The next important phase of the project was staff development. As part of the research project Alver Valley Schools received the MPTA training which includes two half days for Teaching Assistants and a twillight session for teachers.  The training covered:

  • The latest research and guidance on the complementary roles of teachers and TA’s
  • Scaffolding as a framework for developing pupil independence
  • Reflection on practice and developing pupil and class specific strategies for scaffolding
  • Planning strategies to practice

The twilight session for teachers included providing staff and leaders with essential information on how to deploy TA’s in the classroom and to ensure that staff are making every minute count.

Teaching Assistants were then required to develop an action plan which was shared with their class teacher, who would support them to achieve their potential. I also received a copy in order to monitor the actions.

Prior to the Teaching Assistants beginning their MPTA training, they videoed themselves interacting with pupils as a benchmark tool to help us evaluate the impact of the project. This video was only seen by the TA themselves and a member of the working party who acted as a mentor to a small number of staff. Watching the video back gave quite a revelation to some regarding their practice in the classroom: TA’s realised how quickly they jumped in and solved problems for the children, and one said ‘I do everything – I turn the pages, I give him a pen, I jump straight in before he’s even had a chance to think, I interrupt him when he is talking, I practically tell him the answer – I’m spoonfeeding all the time.’ The child she was supporting is in Year 6.

Another TA was similarly shocked: ‘I don’t give him any space, I collect the book for him, I give him the equipment he needs to use, I even wait for him outside the toilet!’ The child she was supporting was in year 4. The videos were also filled with the endless repeating of ‘Good girl! Good boy! Well done! Great job!’ It was suggested that pointing out what successful strategy the child had just used was likely to be much more effective.

Following the training the TA’s wrote an action plan based on their own observations from the videos and shared it with me as the SENCO, the classroom teacher and their mentor. This also built in the opportunity for individuals to reflect on their practice and where they required development. Their actions were also recorded and linked with their performance management targets.

Coaching sessions also followed this training for all who wanted the opportunity to develop their skills and ensure the targets on their action plans were met. Those that took this opportunity made clear progress and the impact was seen through observations and the progress of the children they worked with.

One of the most positive and well used parts of the MITA project is what the staff call ‘the MITA triangle’, which is a scaffolding tool:

A Summary of Scaffolding

  • Happens only through interactions.
  • Related to the specific mini-goals (process success criteria) that the pupil is working on.
  • Happens in the moment, in response to what the pupil has just said or done.
  • Is informed by careful observation, diagnostic questioning and asking the pupil to ‘talk aloud’ as they work.
  • Can be more accurate and precise as more detailed information about the strategies the pupil is using becomes available.
  • Relies on encouraging pupils to ask and answer the question ‘what do I do next? ’effectively and routinely.
  • Is defined by giving the least amount of support and consistently ensuring that the pupil takes as much responsibility for the task as they can.

The MITA triangle is a simple visual reminder of a hierarchy of when to support – or not to support – when working with pupils. The use of the term ‘not support’ is because a key message from the project is to intervene as little as possible when supporting pupils. Assume they can do it, observe carefully, and only intervene after sustained careful observation shows you that the child needs some support.

Our teaching assistants found this really challenging. The idea that it was ok to just sit next to a pupil and effectively do nothing but watch for a few minutes was difficult to take on board. Research shows that you should wait at least 7 seconds before interacting with a child.

The triangle outlines 5 possible ways of intervening. At the top of the triangle the pupil is autonomous and self-scaffolds their own learning.

The next rung down is prompting a pupil. This might be as gentle as a meaningful look or a point of a finger. It might be as simple as saying ‘so, what have you got to do now’ and that will be enough to get the ball rolling. If that isn’t sufficient we might then suggest a very generic strategy, leaving as much of the thinking as possible to the pupil. ‘So, is there anything on the board that might remind you of what you are meant to do now?’

The next step down the triangle is to give clues to the pupil. These will be more specific to the learning at hand than prompts. So we might say ‘would it help you remember if you looked at the success criteria/word bank/sound mat/working wall?’ Remember, this is happening after some quality input from the class teacher. This is not the child encountering information for the first time, or being re-presented with it after it has become obvious that the first time didn’t work. This is not an intervention situation where the TA is acting as a teacher and imparting information. This is when the pupil is working with information or a process they have just had explained to them during whole class teaching.

If that still doesn’t work then the TA has to do some explicit modeling. This means the original teaching has not worked in some way – it could mean it was too hard for the pupil in the first place. Modeling is basically re-teaching the concept or information. Modeling is fine – but the idea is that the pupil gets it first time along with the rest of the class and doesn’t get to have their own private mini lesson with a TA. It was noticeable at this point in the project that many of our pupils did not listen to the class teacher the first time, as they knew that they were going to be rewarded with special 1:1 time with an adult,  once the whole class had received the input. That way dependency lies and learnt helplessness develops.

At the bottom of the triangle is ‘correct’ – just telling the pupil what to do. Not because telling pupils things is bad but because we tell them instead of expecting them to work for the answer. Obviously this means that the answer has to be something they should be able to work out for themselves. If, for example, the pupil has been shown how to find a word on their topic mat, it is not ok to shrug and look hopeless instead of having a go.

If they’ve got counters in front of them, and worked examples, and – if all else fails – someone to re-model the concept to them again, they should be able to re-create a 3×2 array. What shouldn’t happen is for them to be told, ‘put three counters in the first line and another three counters in the second line – there – that’s three times two, draw that in your book.’ In this case, the TA might as well have done the work in the book themselves.

The expectation for teachers was that they provided opportunities for TA’s to share children’s progress through use of the MITA triangle. In order to ensure that the project had the most amount of impact, all staff were required to write in the pupil’s book if they have intervened, and the form the intervention took, using a short hand of letters to represent the symbols from the triangle.

At first staff found elements of this difficult. Lots of staff wanted reassurance they were doing it right or simply didn’t use it. People were a bit confused if they were clueing or modeling at various points. It becomes obvious that you move up and down the triangle at different points as the child encounters and then overcomes difficulties. It didn’t really matter if we couldn’t quite decide if a particular intervention was a prompt or a clue – what mattered was that we were all thinking hard about how to let the child – or children in the case of a group – do the thinking.

When this practice wasn’t sticking I monitored this through the working party, completing a number of book scrutinies. Books that were demonstrating excellent practice were shared at staff meetings so expectations were clear. The triangle and the way in which to use it was also written into the marking policy.

After a number of weeks, we re-videoed the TA’s, and the early impact was clear. Staff were standing back, not jumping in and answering their own questions. Children were collecting their own resources. TA’s were roving the classroom and working with a range of children.  Teachers were working with those that needed the most amount of help. No more general praise, lots more meaningful praise for using specific strategies or for showing perseverance and resilience far more in line with our six strands learning behaviours and using children’s individual targets. More perceptive intervention just at the right time, building on strategies, responding to the pupil at the right time.

When TA’s work with groups, they find it difficult to not go for task completion – they have been set a task by the teacher and feel that they are expected to complete it. This of course leads to gaps in children’s learning as they simply have not understood, no-one has communicated this to the teacher, and now the learning has moved on! When working with a group, of course, the TA needs to be modelling and suggesting strategies that would allow the children to access the task. The MITA project has allowed and, in fact, given TA’s permission to have discussions around the learning – which children needed to be prompted, clued etc. This has enabled the teacher to have further information on a larger number of pupils regarding the level of independence with which each pupil has achieved the process success criteria; the type and amount of scaffolding each pupil needed, if any.

Developing mini-goals: process success criteria

Before you can successfully scaffold pupils’ learning you need to know what you are aiming for and how you will know if the task is being carried out successfully. Success criteria are the keys to this – MITA have used Shirley Clarke’s (2014) work to underpin their framework of mini goals.

Success criteria will often be provided or developed by the pupil as a list at the beginning of the lesson/group of lessons or shared with the Teaching Assistant before the lesson. For example, if the task was to describe the properties of a 2D shape the success criteria might say that the pupil needs to:

  • Name the shape.
  • Say how many sides the shape has.
  • Say how many vertices the shape has.
  • Say how many right angles a shape has.

The list will be used at the end of the lesson for pupils to self-assess against. The teacher often uses the success criteria to mark against during the lesson.

Teaching Assistants, when working with a small group or an individual, are in the position to observe this process – the child doing the task. This is why Teaching Assistants have to know how to interact with pupils and how to provide teachers with the feedback.

Process success criteria is useful as they provide a greater understanding of exactly what a pupil can do in relation to any activity. Process success criteria (mini goals) are all steps required for a child to complete the task successfully. Each step is a mini goal. In order to ‘scaffold’ effectively, you need to be clear about each mini goal so that you can assess how much the pupil is able to do in relation to each one.

Think how you might make a cheese sandwich? What would be your mini goals?

  1. Wash your hands.
  2. Take two slices of bread.
  3. Butter one side of each slice with a knife.
  4. Slice the cheese with a sharp knife.
  5. Place the slices of cheese on one of the buttered sides.
  6. Place the other slice of bread, buttered side down, on top of the cheese.
  7. Slice the sandwich in half with a knife.

The Teaching Assistants needed to understand the use of the success criteria and the use of the language: This is very important as it makes the action the mini goal describes observableThis meant that all staff could watch or listen to the pupil and demonstrate how independent they were in achieving the mini goal.

Professionals in the Classroom

The school have also implemented a number of changes to support TA’s being recognised as professionals in the classroom:

  • All staff who have been recruited have GCSEs in English and Maths with grade C/4 or above. (we have noticed that most staff who now apply for vacancies far exceed this level of education).
  • All new staff have an intensive induction programme with input from a number of key staff.
  • Teachers and TA’s at the beginning of the year sign a TA agreement (see attachment).
  • Performance management is rigorous and linked to the TA professional standards.
  • All staff are encouraged to take part in CPD and invited to attend staff meetings and additional training. The Executive Head teacher delivers training on questioning skills to ensure that staff are clear on how children make progress through questioning.

Fast forward two years and what are TA’s doing differently throughout the school from nursery to Year 6? Waiting. Taking time before jumping in. In fact, not jumping in but rather responding to children. Reminding pupils of strategies they could use, giving children space to struggle and become a little frustrated without rushing in to soothe and calm. Asking the right questions at the right time which moves learning on and makes every second of learning time count. They supplement the teacher and rove the classroom, pen in hand, allowing the teacher to work with children who need the most amount of help.

There has been a really positive response regarding this project with TA’s chatting about it a lot in the staff room. There is even a staff board with examples of good practice displayed. When your TA’s are reflecting about ways to improve their teaching and students learning on their breaks, you know you are having some success .

What our Teaching Assistants say about the project:

The MITA project gives everyone a consistent approach for feedback and marking which is shared by all teaching and support staff. That means that all children are getting the same message and this will continue as they move through the school. All staff are given training on MITA and the work that they do is monitored. It’s vitally important that all classes are using the MITA symbols so that children understand how well they are doing. Children then learn the symbols and understand whether they have understood.

Learning Support Assistant

MITA is all about making sure that children are working independently. Therefore, it provides LSAs with the understanding to not give the answers all the time. It is also about how you ask the questions to get the desired response. Often children will just need a prompt in the right direction to work independently. Mini-goals prove effective when supporting children to work independently. They are not relying on an adult to tell them the next steps and this helps to empower them.

Learning Support Assistant

The project is not over yet for Alver Valley – although the research part for UCL is, with the results being publish in Spring 2021.

Next is a further round of videoing so that staff can see where they are now, and another round of action plans. Further training on AfL will also be taking place for TA’s so they can successfully feedback to the teacher about the pupils they are working with.

The project has also helped class teachers reflect on how they promote independence for all children. Our teachers share the triangle with all pupils – children may receive both a written symbol and verbal feedback throughout their learning. In classes where the project is most successful you will see TA’s supplementing the class teacher, the class teacher working with individuals and groups who need the expertise of the teacher, while the TA will rove around the classroom, pen in hand, reinforcing where things are going well and spotting where children are making mistakes and then prompting, clueing and possibly re-modeling as necessary. But the children need to risk doing something wrong first.

If I told you that this project has been easy, that everyone had bought into the vision and been focussed on improving pupils outcomes from the start, then I would be far from honest. It’s taken a lot of revisiting, holding my head in my hands, support from the Executive Head, Head of Schools and SLT,  Rob Webster’s listening ear, and belief that we were going to bring about change and having some tough conversations.  Today, when I walk through the school, I see a team of staff who want their pupils to be independent and every pupil to reach the best outcome they can.

Kate Russell

Lead SENCO Alver Valley Schools

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