Do teaching assistants assist?

Teaching assistants can make a difference to pupils’ progress in maths and reading says Kevan Collins, as he reports key findings from the Education Endowment Foundation’s first batch of research-based reports.

Teaching assistant helping pupilWe know from existing studies1 that many schools have struggled to train and support Teaching Assistants in ways which benefit pupils, particularly those from low income families. In one of the first batch of reports from the new Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), we have presented findings which suggest some promising ways to change that. Teaching Assistants can benefit learning when they are deployed well, for example by providing targeted one-to-one or small group support.

The results are significant for two reasons:

Firstly, they offer schools valuable information about how to deploy teaching assistants. The number of teaching assistants employed in English schools rose from 96,600 in 2005 to 206,500 in 20122. Using the best evidence to ensure that schools use this resource wisely could make a significant impact on outcomes for the least advantaged children.

Secondly, the results from the EEF’s trials show that when schools and researchers work together, it is possible to evaluate independently the many interventions available to schools, and to find out what really works.

Our findings on teaching assistants’ impact on literacy come from a trial of Switch On Reading, a 10-week programme aimed at pupils in their first year of secondary school who did not achieve expected levels of literacy at the end of primary school3. The approach consists of one-to-one reading sessions lasting 20 minutes, and is most commonly delivered by teaching assistants.

The experiment, involving 308 pupils across 19 schools, was designed as a randomised controlled trial. It found that on average, pupils made an additional three months’ progress as a result of participating in the programme. Students eligible for free school meals and those previously struggling with reading made even greater additional progress.

An evaluation of Catch Up Numeracy, a scheme of one-to-one maths support for pupils aged from 6 to 11, also demonstrated the value of structured interventions4. This programme of twice-weekly sessions delivered by teaching assistants was trialled with 324 pupils in 54 schools over 30 weeks. Three groups were compared: one which continued with normal lessons, one which participated in the scheme, and one group which was given one-to-one attention without Catch Up Numeracy.

The report concludes that both Catch Up Numeracy and one-to-one intervention lead to significant gains in learning, an average of three and four months’ additional progress respectively, compared to continuing with normal lessons. However, there was little evidence that the Catch Up approach provides additional gains over and above those from one-to-one teaching itself.

In addition to the findings from Switch On Reading and Catch Up Numeracy, the EEF published evaluations of a four-week summer school programme, a grammar for writing programme, a feedback scheme and programme to identify the needs of struggling students. These also contributed to our understanding of what works, suggesting that:

  • small group teaching improves the writing skills of those struggling with literacy at the end of primary school
  • structured interventions should be planned in school timetables at the beginning of the year to ensure they are given priority and status
  • summer schools show evidence of promise for English, particularly for students eligible for free school meals and Year 5 pupils (10 year-olds).

Taken collectively, these six reports represent the first step in building a secure evidence base for schools to draw upon to improve results for their poorest pupils. There are currently 66 further projects being funded by the EEF, involving over 2,300 schools and 500,000 pupils across England. These studies (and many more to come over the next decade), will all be publicly reported, providing a steady stream of new knowledge to help teachers and school-leaders make decisions based on the best possible evidence.

Kevan Collins is Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation.

  1. Blatchford, P., Russell, A., Bassett, P., Brown, P., & Martin, C. (2004). The role and effects of teaching assistants in English primary schools (Years 4 to 6) 2000-2003. Results from the Class Size and Pupil-Adult Ratios (CSPAR) KS2 Project (Ref: RR605). Department for Education and Skills.
  2. School workforce in England: November 2012 (statistical release). Department for Education. Retrieved from
  3. Gorard, S., See, B. H., Siddiqui, N. (2014). Switch-on Reading Evaluation Report and Executive Summary February 2014. London: Education Endowment Foundation.
  4. NFER. (2014). A Randomised Trial of Catch Up Numeracy® Evaluation Report and Executive Summary November 2013. London: Education Endowment Foundation.


Share this page