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A systematic literature review on the perceptions of ways in which teaching assistants work to support pupils’ social and academic engagement in secondary classrooms (1988–2005). Summary


This review forms the second in a series of reviews focusing on the role and contributions of adults other than teachers in the classroom. The first review (Cajkler et al., 2006) focused on stakeholder perceptions about the contributions of primary school teaching assistants (TAs) reviewing the literature in the period 1988–2003. This led to a broad systematic map of 145 studies about the contributions of TAs in general, and an in-depth review of 17 studies focusing on parents’, teachers’, pupils’ and TAs’ perceptions of teaching assistant contributions to academic and social engagement in mainstream primary classrooms in the UK and Europe (1988–2003).

This second review has updated the first, leading in the first instance to a systematic map of 168 studies that investigated the contribution and roles of TAs working in classrooms in the period 1988-2005. For this second review, an in-depth analysis of 17 studies of stakeholder views was conducted about secondary school TAs.

This review has been carried out in the context of the following:

  1. The ‘National Agreement’ on workforce reform (DfES, 2003), which set out plans to remodel the school workforce by freeing teachers to focus on teaching and learning and by developing the roles of TAs in schools
  2. The need to prepare new teachers for working as part of a team in support of pupils’ learning (DfES/TTA, 2002)

Recent years have seen a large increase in the number of TAs in UK classrooms (DfES, 2005). There is a widely held belief among policy-makers and authors of literature reviews that TAs play a significant role in lightening teachers’ workloads and in supporting learning and increasing the level of pupil engagement, therefore securing inclusion for pupils with special needs and raising standards (for example, Howes et al., 2003; Lee and Mawson, 1998; OfSTED/HMI, 2002). Some studies have explored the conditions of service of TAs (for example, Neill, 2002a; UNISON, 2004) while others have revealed a wide range of tasks that TAs fulfil in supporting pupils’ learning (for example, Howes et al., 2003; MENCAP, 1999). However, the majority of the studies appear to provide overviews rather than an in-depth analysis of particular contributions that TAs play in supporting pupils’ learning and engagement.


This review aims to systematically to identify which voices are represented in the research literature and what their views are about TAs’ contributions to academic and social engagement in secondary schools.
The specific aims of the review are as follows:

  •  to update the map established by the Review Group for its first review which covered the period 1988-2003 (Cajkler et al., 2006)
  • to identify studies which explore the views of principal educational stakeholders (pupils, parents, teachers and pupil) about the contributions of TAs working to support pupils’ academic and social engagement in secondary schools
  •  to make recommendations for initial teacher education (ITE) practice and continuing professional development (CPD), policy and research, with particular reference to staff working in support of pupils’ academic and social engagement in secondary schools

Review question

This review set out to answer one main question:

What are the perceptions and experience of the principal educational stakeholders (pupils, parents, teachers and teaching assistants) of what teaching assistants do in relation to pupils’ academic and social engagement in secondary schools?


Methods using the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI Centre) guidelines and tools for conducting a systematic review (EPPI Centre, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c and 2003d) were employed throughout.

Reports were identified from the following sources:

  •  Educational Resource Index and Abstracts (ERIC)
  • British Educational Index (BEI)
  • Australian Educational Index (AEI)
  • PsycInfo
  • ISI Web of Science
  • International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS)
  • ArticleFirst
  • handsearches of journals
  • citations in reference lists of all included systematic and non-systematic reviews
  • personal contacts

More than 10,000 citations were reviewed, using inclusion and exclusion criteria successively to the titles and abstracts. 511 papers were screened in full, with quality assurance (QA) screening supplied by the EPPI Centre.

The 168 studies remaining after application of the criteria were keyworded using the EPPI Centre’s Core Keywording Strategy (EPPI Centre, 2003a) and online database software, EPPI-Reviewer (EPPI Centre, 2003b). Additional keywords that are specific to the context of the review (review-specific keywords) were added to those of the EPPI Centre. Again, QA was provided by the EPPI Centre.
Studies identified as meeting the inclusion criteria for the in-depth review were included in the in-depth review. For this stage, the focus was narrowed to target studies that would yield data about the contributions that paid TAs make to academic and social engagement in secondary schools. These were analysed in depth, using the EPPI Centre’s Data-Extraction Tool (EPPI Centre, 2003d). The EPPI Centre’s weights of evidence (WoE) framework was used to ascribe overall quality and relevance to the findings and conclusions of different studies:

A) Soundness of studies (internal methodological coherence), based upon the study only (WoE A)
B) Appropriateness of the research design and analysis used for answering the review question (WoE B)
C) Relevance of the study topic focus (from the sample, measures, scenario, or other indicator of the focus of the study) to the review question (WoE C)
D) An overall weight of evidence (WoE D) taking into account A, B and C was then calculated.
Pairs of Review Group members, working first independently and then comparing their decisions before coming to a consensus, conducted data-extraction and assessment of the WoE judgments. Members of the EPPI Centre helped with data-extraction and quality-assurance of a sample of studies.

The data was then synthesised to bring together the studies which answer the review question and which meet the quality criteria relating to appropriateness and methodology. A coding comparison analysis was conducted of the perceptions found in each study and a narrative commentary was produced.


A total of 10,545 potentially relevant papers were identified (10,023 from the first review, with a further 522 for the period 2003-2005) from the initial searches.

We applied the inclusion and exclusion criteria successively to the titles and abstracts reducing the number to 511, which we screened in full. We examined the 511 full reports with quality assurance (QA) screening supplied by the EPPI Centre.

After screening for relevance to the review, using the pre-established inclusion and exclusion criteria, 186 papers were included in the systematic map. Some of these papers were additional reports of studies already included in the map, so the map was effectively reduced to 168 studies, which were mostly descriptions. Studies were included if they looked at the perceptions of stakeholders about teaching assistant contributions to social and academic engagement in primary and secondary schools.

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