Teaching assistants don't dole out classroom discipline due to fears of overstepping the mark, suggests a new study.
Researchers found that they aren’t dealing with unruly pupils because they are afraid of undermining teachers - despite Government and parental expectations that they play a major part in managing classroom behaviour.
Dr Emma Clarke, who undertook the study at the University of Northampton, said a lack of guidance from schools was leaving most teaching assistants (TAs) confused as to what their role in the classroom was.
Dr Clarke, a former primary school teacher with 17 years’ experience, said: "Primary school teaching assistants are being let down by an education system which leaves them ill prepared and unsure of their role.
“None of the TAs in this study had ever had a conversation with a teacher about their role in classroom discipline, yet each of them believes it is part of their job.
"This uncertainty results in TAs feeling too awkward and uncomfortable to manage behaviour, as they don’t develop a clear understanding of the boundaries or their ‘place’ in the classroom.
"Essentially, they often won't act because they don't want to undermine the teacher."
There are almost 180,000 TAs employed in primary schools across England alone and their duties can range from washing paint pots to teaching whole classes.
Helping maintain discipline is supposedly one of their key roles.
But the new research suggests that in practice very few TAs ever feel empowered to step in.
Dr Clarke, whose Masters’ degree in Education focused on managing challenging behaviour, said: "Many teachers don't communicate effectively with TAs due to time pressures and workload, and as a result there is a very wide gulf in expectations.
"This leads to a great deal of uncertainty for TAs, and often inaction, on their part.
“It’s a difficult situation. The Government wants TAs to reduce teacher workload, but working with TAs can actually increase teacher workload.
"TAs want to support behaviour management, but teachers can’t find time in their day to talk to TAs about what they want them to do, and schools can’t afford to pay TAs to come in early, or stay after school, to talk to teachers.”
She said the role of a teaching assistant is varied and, on paper, can include pastoral support, administrative duties, academic support, and working in partnership with teachers.
As part of her PhD research, Dr Clarke spoke in depth to 30 TAs from 18 typical primary schools about their experiences in managing behaviour.
She found massive inconsistency surrounding what they were asked to do, how they interacted with teachers, what was expected of them, and how they were used.
Thar resulted in TAs having to rely on 'guess work' and experience to guide how they managed pupils.
Common concerns of TAs identified by the research included the relationships between TA and teacher, and TA and children; role definition; communication; consistency; and deployment.
Dr Clarke said these often led to TAs relying on their own common sense and inference, rather than developing an understanding through communication with the teachers they worked with.
She believes confusion around the role has ultimately led - unfairly – to criticism from some quarters, painting TAs as ineffective and poor value for money.
Dr Clarke added: "Teaching assistants could potentially contribute so much more to our children's education if their place in the classroom was properly defined.
"A lot of research has shown the positive impact TAs can have on learning behaviours and on teachers’ abilities to cope in the classroom.
“Classroom behavior is known to be a key factor in deterring undergraduates from training as teachers. With a massive teacher shortage,
"TAs could be the answer to better classroom behaviour, but this potential is currently being missed.”