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Most primary or junior schools have teaching assistants (TAs) who work alongside teachers to help with the whole class. Some TAs support individual children with special educational needs.

Teaching assistants (TAs) or learning support assistants (LSAs) are taking on increasingly important roles within the classroom, but they are not a replacement for a trained teacher, who should maintain overall responsibility for the teaching and learning of all children in their care.

TAs may find themselves getting the classroom ready for lessons, listening to children read or telling them stories, supervising a small group or helping with outings.

Higher level teaching assistants (HLTAs) may take on added responsibilities such as helping to plan lessons or supervising other support staff. In Scotland, assistants supporting children with special educational needs may be called auxiliaries.

A teaching/learning support assistant works alongside pupils on agreed targets and, given adequate training and support, may help the child learn new skills. As well as offering in-class support, an LSA or TA may be involved with assessment and record keeping, lesson planning and preparation and the modification of teaching and learning materials to meet specific needs. Often a TA will be a parent at the school, themselves, or a trained teacher who has taken retirement from a full-time post.

A bridge not a barrier

In most cases the aim of extra support for a specific child with additional needs is to give them access to the mainstream curriculum (though possibly not the whole programme of study). Work shouldn't be too different from what the rest of the class is doing but may be adapted to take account of the child’s learning need. The assistant acts as a bridge, helping them achieve what they are capable of, perhaps by using different teaching styles, acting or as a scribe or amanuensis.

It's easy for a child to cling to their teaching assistant, but while a good assistant will offer social and emotional support, they will at the same time encourage a child to develop friendship groups and become more self-sufficient.

Helping a child develop independence in all aspects of life is a key part of the role, and this includes allowing a child to make mistakes and to look for their own ways to solve problems. Rather than taking over when a child is struggling to achieve something, they will offer the tools to help the child to succeed.

Less is more

The success of TA/LSA support for an individual child is dependent on close liaison between the teaching staff, and the whole school's determination that the pupil be a fully included member from the outset.

Allowing an assistant to become 'glued' to the side of a pupil will prevent the child from becoming independent and making their own friends.

Effective support will enable the pupil to develop the skills necessary to become an independent learner, competent, confident and valued within the school and the wider community.

A teaching assistant in action

Kathryn Lees supports pupils with visual impairment. Here she offers invaluable insight into her role as a TA:

Good support for the pupil with visual impairment does not remain the same throughout their school career. It constantly evolves to meet the demands of the curriculum and to take into account the developing skills and independence of the pupil.

Early years

In nursery, a TA may help to foster the child's natural curiosity, by encouraging them to explore the environment safely, developing language and reasoning.

They may help the pupil with practical tasks such as learning to put on, button and unbutton their coat and change into their PE kit.

Primary school

Once a child moves into the reception class, the role will be to assist in developing the new skills which are needed to access the curriculum.

Depending on the type of visual impairment and what adaptations are necessary, I will produce reading books and class material in large print or Braille.

Planning with the class teacher and, possibly, a specialist teacher for pupils with visual impairment, will have identified how to prepare these in the most appropriate way, and I allocate time to produce them to a high standard. Once they are available, the pupil can take part in the class activities along with the other members of the class. Good support at this stage may mean working with the child on the additional curriculum, ie Braille, reinforcing new skills that have previously been taught by the class or specialist teacher.

In the next few years in primary school a touch-typing programme might be introduced, using a screen-reading program such as Jaws or Supernova. I may help the pupil to practise these skills, which can prove invaluable in the years to come, both in terms of speed and presentation of work. The teacher will give me the class's work well in advance so that I can prepare it in a suitable format and return it before the relevant lesson. This ensures that pupils with visual impairment receive their work at the same time as their peers. This introduces more formality and structure into the system and reduces the need for in-class support. Developing this independence now will smooth the transition to high school.

Senior school

At senior school the emphasis will be on the preparation of the vast range of curriculum materials. Again, I will prepare these in advance after close consultation with the teacher. Materials might include tactile maps, diagrams, graphs and charts. I may also be involved in pre-teaching, revision and study skills sessions if these have been identified as a priority and may act as a scribe or a reader in examinations (with the permission of the examinations board).

I may also help the pupil to access the internet and, at A level, act as a research assistant.

With thanks to Kathryn Lees, who works as a TA in several schools. She is a Braillist and uses technology to produce many of the materials needed for pupils. She is a major source of support to new TAs, especially during their induction period. She can be seen and heard on a DVD produced by the DfE as part of the induction pack for TAs.

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