Why Hattie’s effect sizes miss the bigger picture…

I am a big Hattie fan. I like him because he’s not afraid to call us all out on the strange things we teachers get up to because ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’. Whether we are teachers or school leaders, we need people like John Hattie in education to remind us to focus on evidence and impact rather than rhetoric or hyperbole. However, his latest comments on  the value of teaching assistants to pupils’ learning is missing something.

Evidence suggests that teaching assistants add little value to pupil achievement and that often in schools the pupils who struggle the most are taught by the least qualified, the teaching assistants. On the face of it, yes this was once a problem and may still be a problem in some schools, but many schools have acted on this mistake and now ensure that children further behind  have the best teaching. It still surprises me that educated people allowed otherwise, but times have changed.  For example, in our school we have switched timetabling and rotas so that teachers themselves do most of the interventions with the children who need to catch up while teaching assistants do more playground duties and supervising classes during assemblies etc. We have prioritised teachers having one to one or small group time with pupils who will benefit from that expertise, rather than as Hattie put it, leaving it to the ‘amateurs’ (which really sounds rather rude, but is technically correct). This has meant teachers have more time targeting those pupils with the greatest need and the impact in evident.

Certainly this proves Hattie’s point that needier pupils require ‘expert’ rather than ‘amateur’ attention, who could possibly argue with this, but this belies the fact that this is often only possible because of teaching assistants covering those other non-teaching activities. Hattie’s condemnation of teaching assistants working with the neediest children is right, but he ignores the extra bandwidth given to teachers who have teaching assistants. For example, having a teaching assistant might mean the difference between it taking two hours on your own to change a display, to half an hour designing material then your TA changing the display while you put that time to marking books and providing detailed feedback to move pupils on. Without that time, perhaps your marking would have been rushed and not as effective – so then what’s the effect size there of not having a teaching assistant? The support teaching assistants give teachers in time by taking care of those peripheral activities cannot be ignored here. We have to acknowledge that time is like gold dust to teachers yet the system is asking more and more of their time.

Lately all  we hear about is the deficit in graduates applying to be teachers; it is likely that sooner or later we will face an critical national shortage in teachers. And why is this? Because we are overloading teachers with  paper work and record keeping because in turn, school leaders are burdened by an accountability and compliance agenda that is literally suffocating schools. Teachers now have more paper work and record keeping demands than ever before. Give them an assistant to tidy the classroom and re-arrange that display thats been ignored for weeks, but kept them awake at night, then we are supporting teachers in coping with workload. It is short sighted in this climate to consider teaching assistants as ineffective without considering the time they give back to teachers. Yes, teachers didn’t have teaching assistants when I started teaching, that’s what all leaders say when they have to take them away from teachers, but then when I started teaching they didn’t have emails, class do jo messages or the kind of paper trails we have now.  Teachers can spend anywhere up to an hour or more a day answering emails or messages from parents, let alone all the other things we weren’t expected to do fifteen years ago. We forget just how the job has changed and why teachers need all the help they can get.

So while I agree wholeheartedly that untrained people should not be assigned to the most needy pupils, I don’t agree with the research rhetoric that teaching assistants don’t add value to a school and this is because no one could measure the effect of a teaching assistant sorting out all my resources while I work with a child at playtime who is a year behind in writing, or the time that might give me to design and create support resources for that child. Some might say that teachers just have to do both, and yes they do need to, and they do, a lot, but if we squeeze teachers any harder, then what?

So, while it’s important to think about impact and how schools use their resources, and ever more so with all the budget cuts, we should also think carefully about those factors that are hard to measure but that everyone knows are valuable. We may very well have to do away with teaching assistants if school budgets are squeezed further, but then we have re-evaluate what we are asking of teachers otherwise we might be faced with having to measure the effect size of a dwindling, worn out teacher workforce.

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