This Friday, state and federal education ministers will meet for the first time since the federal election.
The stakes are high. Ministers meet as teacher shortages and workload pressures are dominating education headlines and severely stressing schools. We need to address teacher supply concerns and better support the teachers who are already in schools.
But as our new research shows, we can’t just focus on teachers. We also need to look at teaching assistants, who often fly under the radar, but represent a significant part of the workforce.
Who are teaching assistants?
Teaching assistants work across all school sectors – government, independent and Catholic.
They can do a variety of tasks, from helping teachers prepare lessons and delivering targeted literacy and numeracy support to maintaining student records and supporting students with additional intellectual, physical or behavioural needs.
Teaching assistants are generally required to have a certificate III or IV in school-based education support (or similar), which takes between six to 12 months to complete and can be done at TAFE or other registered training organisations. Their titles vary by state and territory and include education aides, integration aides, school learning support officers or school services officers.
They are mostly female, work part-time, and are typically in their mid-40s.
Our new analysis, based on Australia Bureau of Statistics data, shows Australia spends more than A$5 billion on teaching assistants each year. This is about about 8% of recurrent school expenditure.
Today there are more than 105,000 teaching assistants working in classrooms across the country. This is almost a four-fold increase since since 1990 and is well above the increase in students and teachers over that period.
It’s not clear why teaching assistant numbers have expanded so rapidly. However, a possible reason could be they have been hired to help with increasing numbers of students with additional needs in mainstream schools. Along with this, there has been greater school autonomy in recruitment and increased administrative loads.
What do they do?
We know teaching assistants are permitted to perform a wide variety of tasks, but we don’t know exactly which tasks they are given, or how tasks are being carried out. Governments have not paid close attention to their work.
So, we know what teaching assistants do in theory, but very little about what they do in practice.
And we need to make sure we are using them well. They can have huge benefits. But when used poorly, through no fault of their own, they can slow down student learning.
The upsides of teaching assistants
Targeted literacy and numeracy interventions can see teaching assistants help struggling students achieve an extra four months of learning over the course of a year.
Some studies show teaching assistants can also achieve similar results to teachers when delivering these targeted interventions, especially in literacy, provided the interventions are well structured.
Beyond academic learning, teaching assistants can chase permission slips, keep records, coordinate extra-curricular activities, or help with yard duty. This can free up teachers to focus on planning, assessment, and teaching in class.
We know teachers need more support
Australia’s teachers are crying out for more time to teach. A 2021 Grattan Institute survey of 5,000 Australian teachers found that around nine in ten teachers say they “always” or “frequently” do not get enough time to prepare for effective teaching, or to effectively plan their lessons.
Teachers we surveyed estimated they could save an extra two hours a week to focus on teaching if non-teaching staff took on their extra-curricular activities, such as supervising sports and student clubs, or doing yard duty.
The potential risks
Alongside the benefits, we also need to understand the dangers if teaching assistants are not use intelligently.
The United Kingdom invested heavily in teaching assistants in the early 2000s, but this did not boost student learning. Teaching assistants were often given poorly structured tasks, working primarily with struggling students. This cut the amount of time these students spent with their teacher and lead to worse academic results. These risks can be avoided with better planning and training.
Currently, we don’t know enough about how teaching assistants are used in Australia, but there are some worrying signs. A 2016 study of four schools in the ACT found students with a learning difficulty or disability were primarily receiving instruction from a teaching assistant, and spending less time with their teacher.
What should happen next
Education ministers and Catholic and independent school leaders need to ensure Australian students are getting the most from our large teaching assistant workforce.
Education Minister Jason Clare will meet with this state and territory education colleagues in Canberra on Friday.
First, governments should investigate how teaching assistants are being deployed in schools today – exactly how they work with teachers and students, and what tasks they are (or are not) being given.
Second, governments should fund pilot programs to evaluate the best ways for teaching assistants to support teachers and students. We need to identify what works best, and then spread that practice across all schools.
Some states and territories have done more on this issue than others. The NSW government’s recent commitment to trial new administrative staff in schools, including a detailed study of which staff members are best placed to do different tasks, is a step in the right direction.
So, teaching assistants should be on the agenda at Friday’s meeting. And any new commitments could go into the next National Schools Reform Agreement – which sets out nationally agreed changes for the next five years – due to be signed in late 2023.
Julie Sonnemann is a board director of two not-for-profit organisations, The Song Room which provides arts learning in disadvantaged schools and The Ochre Foundation which provides free curriculum resources across Australia.
Dr Jordana Hunter is the Director of the Education Program at the Grattan Institute, an independent, not-for-profit think tank. Grattan received funding from the Origin Energy Foundation to support Grattan’s Making Time for Great Teaching report series.