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The impact of paid adult support on the participation and learning of pupils in mainstream schools. Summary

There has been a massive rise in the number of paid support staff being employed to work alongside teachers in mainstream schools and classrooms. In the UK, the majority work as teaching assistants (TAs), but recently schools within the Excellence in Cities initiative have employed learning mentors, and occasionally paid adult support in classrooms is offered by qualified teachers. A recent government consultation paper on the role of school support staff (DfES, 2002) indicated that there were over 100,000 working in schools - an increase of over 50 percent since 1997.

Several recent publications have recognised the increasingly valuable and supportive role that paid adult support staff can have in mainstream schools (see, for example, Farrell, Balshaw et al., 1999; Balshaw and Farrell, 2002; Rose, 2000; CSIE, 2000) and this general view is supported by government documents and Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) reports (DfES, 2000a; Ofsted, 2002). However, despite these generally positive accounts of the value of support staff, to date no systematic review of international literature has been conducted that has focused on the key question of whether and how support staff in classrooms have an impact on pupils' learning and participation in schools and classrooms. Put simply, is there evidence that pupils learn and participate more effectively in mainstream schools when support staff are present in classrooms?

Aims of the review and review question

This review aims to explore this issue by identifying and evaluating the empirical evidence around the question of whether support staff can increase the learning and participation of children in mainstream schools. In undertaking this task we focused on support given to all children, including those described as having special educational needs, those from ethnic minorities and those who are gifted and talented. We were interested in the impact of support that is provided by a broad range of staff, including TAs (and those with equivalent roles and job titles), learning mentors, technical support staff and teachers whose role was to work alongside their colleagues in supporting students in mainstream schools. The majority of studies referred to the work of TAs or their equivalents. In exploring the impact of paid adult support on learning we defined 'learning' as including academic, personal and social learning. Participation was defined in terms of pupils' participation in the culture, curricula and community of the schools.

Finally we considered two types of impact that support staff could have. Firstly we looked at studies on impact that was related to 'measured' change in pupils' learning and participation, and secondly we reviewed research in which the views of professionals, parents and pupils indicated that there were changes in the participation and learning of pupils following the introduction of paid adult support staff.

Taking all of this into account we had two interconnected review questions:

  • What is the impact of paid adult support on the participation and learning of pupils in mainstream schools? and
  • How does impact vary according to the type of support?

Answers to these questions would provide much-needed evidence about the effectiveness of different types of support for a variety of pupils in primary and secondary mainstream schools. For example, they could indicate what the ingredients are in schools which are related to effective support; they could highlight areas in which there is a need for more targeted training of support staff and teachers; and they could throw light on the impact of different styles of support on learning and participation. Taken as a whole, they should be of interest to head teachers and local education authority (LEA) officers, schools' governing bodies and those involved in teacher training and the training of support staff. In particular, they should help to answer the question of whether the employment of paid adult support staff in schools, the vast majority of whom are not qualified teachers, represents value for money.

Methods

Identifying and describing studies

Inclusion criteria

We reviewed all studies which met all the following criteria:

  • They were written in English.
  • They reported on the results of empirical research (rather than purely theoretical or exhortatory reviews).
  • They were concerned with pre-school and compulsory schooling in schools serving a wide range of children in their locality.
  • They were primarily concerned with the perceived or 'measured' impact of paid adult support in those schools.
  • They focused on the impact of this support on one or more aspects of pupils' participation and learning.

Exclusion criteria

We did not review studies for the following reasons:

  • They were not written in English.
  • They were purely theoretical or exhortatory reviews of the field.
  • They focused on support in independent schools, special schools, withdrawal units, off-site units and other forms of 'alternative' provision.
  • They concerned voluntary support, support offered by virtue of specialist professional training (such as educational psychologists or physiotherapists) or support offered by school-aged peers.

Search strategy

The main strand in the search strategy was a search of electronic databases covering books, journal articles, conference papers and proceedings, theses, dissertations and reports. Test searches showed that keywords relating to 'school' and 'support', together with a long list of terms for 'participation / learning' were sufficient as keywords. In addition, personal contacts within the Review and Advisory Groups were able to identify and in some cases supply relevant and ongoing research studies and to suggest sources of unpublished/grey literature. Journals which yielded a number of significant articles were handsearched to check for other studies. Searches were also carried out of websites of national and international organisations which commission and publish research in the field of inclusive education.

Mapping of studies

The inclusion/exclusion criteria were not all straightforward to apply and necessitated a detailed reading of a relatively large number of studies. Such difficulties had been anticipated early on during discussions, and inclusion criteria went through a series of 'qualitative' refinements to sharpen the focus of the review before the systematic map was completed. Mapping was carried out using the keywording proforma developed by the EPPI-Centre, and this was supplemented by a review-specific keywording proforma developed by the Inclusion Review Group, which categorised studies according to the pupils on whom the support focused, the categories of support personnel involved, the area of support offered, the type of impact claimed and the data supporting that impact, whether based on perceptions or on direct measures and observations.

In-depth review and weight of evidence

Studies included in the final in-depth stage of review were subject to a rigorous examination using EPPI-Centre and review-specific data-extraction tools. Key elements (such as aims, methodology, context, results and conclusions) were described and, at the same time, judgements were made as to the quality of the reported study in terms of the adequacy of description, the appropriateness of methods used, and the apparent thoroughness and care taken with these methods in that context. These judgements were used to determine a 'weight of evidence' composed of three sections: the trustworthiness of the reported study, the appropriateness of design and analysis as reported, and the relevance of the focus of the study to answering the review question.

Synthesis of evidence

A process of clustering studies was central to the synthesis. Studies were examined and placed provisionally into a number of groups, each of which seemed to illuminate a distinctive dimension of impact. Clearly, there is not just one way of clustering studies to highlight similarities and differences between them, and so we were flexible in forming clusters, and open to changing an emergent cluster if it became clear that there was a better way of bringing out contradictions and themes.

Results

Identifying studies for in-depth review

All studies included in the in-depth review had passed the inclusion and exclusion criteria, and were therefore empirical studies drawing on systematically generated data. However, not all these studies represented good practice with respect to design, implementation and reporting. Equally significantly, all these studies addressed the research questions, partially in some cases or in such a way as to broaden our interpretation of impact as applied to paid adult support. This being the case, the final stage of inclusion and exclusion was an iterative process, in which the definition of impact was further sharpened and refined against studies which were possible candidates for inclusion. Similarly, definitions about what counted as evidence of impact were also sharpened slightly, with the result that some further studies were excluded. This process of deciding on the studies to be included in the review began with the screening of titles and abstracts. This resulted in 114 different studies being considered potentially relevant. Of these 111 complete documents were studied, which led to a further reduction to a list of 67 studies that were subject to keywording. On closer examination of these studies, 43 were rejected and we were left with 24 that were used in the descriptive map and in-depth review.

Dimensions of impact

At the most straightforward level, impact is about whether paid adult support makes a difference, and if so, what and how, and to whom? However, impact is a deceptively simple notion. Engaging with the range of studies in this area, it became clear that there are many elements or, as we have termed them, dimensions, to consider when trying to understand the effectiveness of paid adult support.

The studies could have been grouped in many ways, but through a process of comparison and contrast, we have presented these dimensions as four clusters of studies. Each cluster explores a particular dimension of impact, and synthesises a broad range of quantitative and qualitative evidence, including test scores, ratings scales and staff and student perceptions. Although these clusters are interconnected, the clustering structure leads to a deeper understanding of the dimensions of the impact of support. The structure raises rather than hides tensions between the findings of the different studies, and leads to suggestions on how these might be resolved.

The four clusters of studies explore the following:

A The impact of paid adult support on the inclusion of students seen as having Special Educational Needs (SEN)
B The effect of general support on overall achievement
C Sociocultural aspects of the impact of paid adult support
D The detail of effective paid adult support practice.

Cluster A: Paid adult support and the inclusion of pupils with SEN

General findings

Studies in this cluster indicate that the positive or negative perceptions that teachers and pupils may have about SEN pupils and paid adult support staff can directly impact on the inclusiveness of the schools and the participation of its pupils. Indeed the strongest evidence of the impact of paid adult support that emerges from this cluster concerns the impact of this support on pupil participation. In these studies, the participation of SEN pupils in mainstream classes is directly related to the efforts of paid adult support staff. In addition, strong evidence emerges supporting the notion that paid adult support staff are generally important and useful in promoting inclusion and that they directly impact on pupils' participation. These findings are evident in all of the studies reviewed in this cluster and therefore have a general relevance, as each study looked at the provision of SEN inclusion in a different context.

Key Points: Cluster A
  • Paid adult support staff can be effective mediators or 'connectors' between different groups and individuals in the school community.
  • Paid adult support staff who are valued, respected and well integrated members of an educational team are seen as positively impacting on the inclusion of SEN pupils in mainstream classrooms, particularly in regard to these pupils' participation.
  • Paid adult support staff who are not valued and not included with teachers and school management in the decision-making process are seen as being less effective in promoting the inclusion and participation of SEN pupils.
  • Paid adult support staff can sometimes be seen as stigmatising the pupils they support.
  • Paid adult support staff can sometimes thwart inclusion by working in relative isolation with the pupils they are supporting and by not helping their pupils, other pupils in the class and the classroom teacher to interact with each other.
  • Paid adult support staff are generally seen as having a positive impact on the inclusion of pupils with SEN and this has been reflected by parents, teachers and pupils.

Cluster B: Effect of paid adult support on overall achievement

General findings

This cluster focuses on attainment as a significant part of the exploration of impact. There are two large-scale quantitative studies in the cluster in which the findings indicate that the impact of paid adult support on general attainment is small. These two studies, however, also suggest that the focus on attainment represents a limited notion of impact, and that the impact of different ways of working, or on working with particular groups, or on the characteristics of learners which cannot be interpreted from general attainment scores, may be just as significant. Other smaller-scale studies in this cluster support the notion that paid adult support staff can and do have an effect on the learning of particular groups of pupils, depending on the way that they work and the kind of effect that is under scrutiny.

Key Points: Cluster B
  • Paid adult support shows no consistent or clear overall effect on class attainment scores.
  • Paid adult support may have an impact on individual but not class test scores.
  • Most studies do not distinguish between all the ways in which paid adult support staff can work with students.
  • Qualitative evidence of impact is much more positive. The perceptions of participants in the same studies that indicate little impact of paid adult support on general attainment, stress the significant effect on attainment that support staff can have.

Cluster C: Sociocultural issues on impact

General findings

The studies in this cluster emphasise the important roles paid adult support staff play as mediators. There are strong suggestions that this mediation is a key element in promoting pupils' participation and learning. Paid adult support staff mediate in various ways; between a number of groups, individuals, interests and understandings. This is described as 'effective sociocultural mediation' where support staff mediate between pupils and teachers, and between pupils and other pupils, and they can tune in to pupils' cultural identities in their local communities and the dominant culture of a school and its curriculum.

All studies in this cluster suggest that the more paid adult support staff understand and can tap into the sociocultural aspects of their pupils' lives, the more impact they can have on pupils' learning and participation. There are findings from the research in this cluster which highlight some of the factors that contribute to paid adult support staff's effective sociocultural mediation. These studies suggest that, when paid adult support staff have detailed, personal knowledge of the pupils they support (knowledge of language, culture, interests, family, history, behaviour, or any combination of these) and can utilise this knowledge to engage these pupils in learning and participating, they have a clear and positive impact.

Key Points: Cluster C
  • Sociocultural aspects of pupils' lives and the school community are important but often neglected elements of the thinking about paid adult support staff's impact on pupils' learning and participation.
  • Paid adult support staff fulfil important roles as mediators in a number of contexts, as they mediate between pupils, teachers, specialists, parents and even different cultures.
  • Knowledge of pupils' cultures, behaviours, languages and interests can be utilised by paid adult support staff to have a positive impact on pupils' learning and participation.

Cluster D: The detail of effective paid adult support practice

General findings

Each study in this cluster describes elements of the roles taken by support staff, and attempts to trace the relationship between these roles and the learning and participation of particular pupils. In this way, the cluster highlights a question implicit in the notion of 'support' - support for what? Lack of clarity over this question appears to give rise to various unintended consequences. Most significantly, there is evidence from several studies of a tension between paid adult support behaviour that contributes to short-term changes in pupils, and those which are associated with the longer-term developments of pupils as learners. Paid adult support strategies associated with on-task behaviour in the short term do not necessarily help pupils to construct their own identity as learners, and some studies in this cluster suggest that such strategies can actively hinder this process.

Key Points: Cluster D
  • Paid adult support staff can positively affect on-task behaviour of students through their close proximity.
  • Continuous close proximity of paid adult support can have unintended, negative effects on longer-term aspects of pupil participation and teacher engagement.
  • Less engaged teachers can be associated with the isolation of both students with disabilities and their support staff, insular relationships between paid adult support staff and students, and stigmatisation of pupils who come to reject the close proximity of paid adult support.

Summary and conclusions

Bringing together the key points from each of the clusters, it is possible to draw out three overlapping themes:

  1. The relative importance of raising standards and engagement in learning. The two large-scale quantitative studies in Cluster B show no consistent or clear overall effect on overall class attainment scores. However, the studies in Cluster A show that paid adult support staff who are valued, respected and well-integrated members of an educational team are seen as positively impacting on the inclusion of SEN pupils in mainstream classrooms, particularly with regard to these pupils' participation, and this has been reflected by parents, teachers and pupils. Even in studies in Cluster B where impact on general standards is seen to be low, the perceptions of participants indicate a significant effect. It seems that paid adult support may provide important attention and support to specific students, affecting individual but not class test scores.
  2. The risk of marginalisation. Paid adult support staff can sometimes thwart actual inclusion by working in relative isolation with the pupils they are supporting and by not helping their pupils, other pupils in the class and the classroom teacher to connect and engage together (Cluster A). Continuous close proximity of paid adult support can have unintended, negative effects on longer-term aspects of pupil participation and teacher engagement (Cluster D).
  3. The mediation role. Paid adult support staff can be effective mediators or 'connectors' between different groups and individuals in the school community (Cluster A). Cluster C develops this idea, showing how paid adult support staff play important roles in mediating between pupils, teachers, specialists, parents and even different cultures. Their impact on pupils' learning and participation should be seen in relation to the social and cultural dimension of pupils' lives and the school community, because their knowledge of pupils' cultures, behaviours, languages and interests can be utilised by paid adult support staff to have a positive impact on the pupils' learning and participation.

Implications

There are a number of implications for policy, practice and research that emanate from this review.

In relation to policy, despite some of the recent concerns expressed by the teaching unions, it is almost certain that the numbers of staff being employed as support workers in mainstream schools will continue to grow. Balshaw and Farrell (2002) suggest that this rapid growth in the number of support staff and their constantly evolving roles has been allowed to take place within a policy vacuum both in the UK and overseas. One key consequence of this is that, by and large, the salary and conditions of service of support staff are far inferior to their teacher colleagues. Given these unfavourable employment conditions, it is perhaps surprising that this review identified 'qualitative' evidence of the positive impact of paid adult support. On this basis it is possible that, if the conditions of service and career structures improved, support staff would have an even greater impact in supporting the learning and participation of children than they do already.

Therefore from a policy perspective the findings of this review and from other reports indicate the following:

  • LEAs and schools should continue to employ support staff to work alongside teachers in mainstream classes.
  • A nationally agreed structure for salary and conditions of service should be developed so that that job of a TA can be viewed as a profession in its own right.
  • There should be an agreed procedure whereby TAs can, if they so wish, progress from being assistants to properly qualified teachers, without having to undergo a traditional four-year degree programme.
  • Policies for training assistants and teachers who work with them should be continually reviewed. New entrants to the profession should be equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to make an effective contribution right from the start; they should be provided with sufficient induction and in-service training opportunities; and there should be regular opportunities for teachers and assistants to undergo joint training.

In relation to practice, this review echoes the literature on the tensions that exist between the value of one-to-one and group support. The way support is provided to pupils in mainstream schools is central to the debate about developing effective inclusive practices. There is evidence that an overuse of one-to-one support can have a negative impact on participation. However, many pupils have major learning difficulties and require one-to-one attention for parts of the day in order for them to learn. Therefore, when planning individual programmes, it is important to combine individualised instruction, either in class or on a withdrawal basis, with supported group work in mainstream classes that facilitates their participation in a peer group. This balance of work is not easy to achieve and inevitably some compromises have to be made. Support staff and teachers therefore need to be sensitive to the needs and wishes of all students and to review the situation frequently. In order to work in this way, it is important for support staff, teachers and, where appropriate pupils, to work together in planning and implementing programmes of work.

Therefore, from the point of view of developing effective classroom practice the findings of this review suggest the following:

  • When planning individual programmes, one-to-one teaching, either in class or on a withdrawal basis, should be combined with supported group work in mainstream classes that facilitates all pupils' participation in peer group activities.
  • Support staff and teachers need to be sensitive to the needs and wishes of all students and to review the situation frequently in order to achieve the right balance of individual and group work. Inevitably some compromises have to be made.
  • It is important for support staff, teachers, and where appropriate pupils, to work together in planning and implementing programmes of work.
  • Senior staff in schools need to allocate sufficient time for this planning to take place.

In relation to research, the two large-scale statistical studies showed little or no evidence that the presence of TAs in the classroom had any impact on raising pupil attainment. This finding contradicts the evidence produced by Ofsted reports and the many anecdotal accounts from teachers, TAs, parents and pupils (see Balshaw and Farrell, 2002). Other studies in the review suggest that well-designed, co-ordinated, small-scale research projects using a variety of different approaches can demonstrate how paid adult support staff can have a substantial impact on learning and participation. These studies also throw light on the relationships between types of support, the focus of that support, and the learning and participation of pupils. The contrasting findings are, in part, a consequence of the methodology adopted. Large-scale studies inevitably mask many of the complex aspects of practice that can lead to individuals making excellent progress. Small-scale studies, however methodologically sound, do not allow us to make generalisations across large populations. There is clearly a need for further large-scale studies to be designed in such a way that they are sensitive to the range of factors that can affect learning and participation.

From a research perspective, therefore, the findings of this review suggest the following:

  • There is scope for a broad range of methodologies, all of which need to be explicit about the approaches that they used and to justify them fully. However, it is also important not to make exaggerated claims from the findings. Findings from smaller-scale studies should continually be synthesised in an attempt to arrive at more generalisable conclusions about impact.
  • The outcomes of more rigorous research should be set alongside the more anecdotal accounts from teachers and parents about the vitally important role that support staff play in schools. If teachers, pupils and parents believe that paid adult support staff are of value, then the quality of working relationships between those involved is likely to increase their positive impact.
  • There is scope for more, larger-scale 'rigorous' systematic studies that focus on the views of teachers and assistants about the role of support staff. This might be done by carrying out a major postal and interview survey in which staff were asked to complete a series of questions about different aspects of support. Staff from different types of mainstream schools could be surveyed and their findings be contrasted with those from staff in special schools. The benefits from carrying out such a large-scale survey might offset the problems that would inevitably follow from such a study that relate to the lack of sensitivity to individual contexts in which support is carried out.
  • Despite the methodological concerns reflected above, it is still important to design good-quality trials of different interventions in which a number of variables (for example, the type of SEN, hours of support and the educational setting) are controlled and to assess the impact, perceived or 'measured', on the pupils. In addition, it would be important to look at the correlation between perceived and measured impact. Such studies might also reveal contradictory evidence of impact: for example, when pupils show measurable gains in attainment but increased levels of anxiety.
  • There is a lack of research that has systematically sought pupils' views about the types of support that they most value. Given the nature of the pupils that are supported, such a study would have to employ a mixture of methods but would almost certainly rely on individual interviews and focus groups. From a large-scale study of this sort, it might be possible to draw comparisons between different groups of learners at different ages about the nature of the support that they feel is most beneficial.
  • Further research is also needed on the views of non-supported pupils about the role of paid adult support and on whether or how these views might affect the contribution that the support staff can make.

Strengths and limitations of the review

One of the key strengths of this review, in the opinion of the authors, is that it addresses a highly topical question that has been little explored in literature reviews. In addition, because of the way in which the synthesis has been conducted, the evidence that exists which illuminates the question has been utilised to good effect. There are, however, also significant limitations. It is possible that significant studies have been missed through restrictions on language and through potential inadequacies in searching. In addition more complete information on the number of studies considered at each stage of the searching process would have demonstrated greater reliability in the process. Also, there are out of necessity a series of compromises to be made in applying the rigorous procedures of systematic review to end up with a useful product which deals with a question on which relatively little primary research has been conducted. For example, we consider that the construction of clusters of studies is a useful device in terms of developing understanding of impact in this area, but this clustering would not make sense if the studies which had relatively low weight of evidence were not used to strengthen the dimensions being established through this approach.

References

Balshaw M, Farrell P (2002) Teaching Assistants: Practical Strategies for Effective Classroom Support. London: Fulton.

Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education (CSIE) (2000) Learning Supporters and Inclusion. Bristol, UK: CSIE.

DfES (2000a) Working with Teaching Assistants: A Good Practice Guide. London: DfES Publications.

DfES (2002) Developing the Role of School Support Staff: Consultation document. London: DfES publications

Farrell P, Balshaw M, Polat F (1999) The Management, Role and Training of Learning Support Assistants. London: DfEE Publications.

Ofsted (2000) Educational Inclusion: Guidance for inspectors and schools. London: Ofsted.

Rose R (2000) Using classroom support in a primary school: a single school case study. British Journal of Special Education 27: 191-196.

This report should be cited as: Howes A, Farrell P, Kaplan I, Moss S (2003) The impact of paid adult support on the participation and learning of pupils in mainstream schools. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

  
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