Beware the TA

OK, before you start rushing to the defence of TAs (that’s Teaching Assistants to those uninitiated to the workings of the British school system), let me first say that I have worked with a number of really, really good ones, and that my life as a teacher would be hugely more difficult if they weren’t there. Let me also say that my children have benefited greatly from their presence and that I, and they, wouldn’t be without them for the world.

From a teaching point of view, I know how impossible it is to deal with a random, needy child with huge special needs when there is only one of you and thirty of them. I know that there are children who won’t do anything of much value, indeed, who will positively cause havoc in a classroom without an adult giving them 1-1 support. Sam would never have made it through a mainstream primary education without a TA. He would never have survived in the playground, or the squash of the cloakroom, especially in the early days, without the protection of an adult whose job it was to look out for him, to make sure he wasn’t becoming a target either for those little girls who would have picked him up and carried him round like a doll all day or those for whom difference brought out a much more negative response. He would never have made what progress he did in his lessons without one.


And this is a big but. When your child has the kind of learning difficulty, like Down’s Syndrome, that necessitates a personal TA for every moment of every day there are dangers. Dangers that I had no idea might even exist before my son started on his journey through primary education in the local mainstream school.

Take getting dressed in the morning, for instance. The times I have cried tears of frustration that my ever growing eldest child wouldn’t put his trousers on, or his shoes, or clean his teeth, or do up his coat, or walk up the road or any of a multitude of things you expect the older one to do while you wrestle the baby into the snowsuit (more difficult than you would expect) or the toddler into the pushchair (gets easier the more experience you have) are way more than could be counted on the fingers of both hands and all of my toes. Why would Sam learn independence when he had his very own PA? Why would he do anything on his own when all of his experience in school, the larger part of every day, involved an adult sitting next to him, encouraging him every step of the way? Why should they care what effect this care had on my mental well-being?

I had in mind the sort of support that, over the years, faded more and more into the background, finding itself other jobs to do while keeping a watching brief on the child in question. I didn’t realise that other adults might feel the need to engage in a bit of justifying their own jobs by standing too close, or holding a metaphorical hand a little too tightly for a little too long. I had in mind the kind of TA who gave the teacher the limelight when it came to teaching; who encouraged my son to listen to what was being said at the front, to build a relationship with that important person, so that both could benefit from the knowledge of each other. To let that person be the expert. I didn’t know that she would be the person I saw most of all, not the teacher.

I knew that Sam would need this person, but I didn’t expect the relationship to be quite so, well, close. I was taken aback by how much I resented them in the early days; that person who worked with my boy so closely, but who seemed to have a slightly different vision to mine. I had nothing to do with any of the appointments to TA/PA to my son, so I swallowed that resentment, as hard and as big as an ostrich’s egg, in the hope that they would soon come to see what I did; the little boy beyond the label.

And what about his little heart? When he left primary school my own ached for the boy who was setting off into a new school all on his own. One of the reasons we chose a special school for Sam’s secondary education, class sizes aside, was that there would be no personal TA. Right at that moment when what you hope for your children is that they will grow in independence it was a no-brainer that he should go to a school where he would be allowed to succeed or fail by his own efforts, where he would be positively encouraged to stand on his own two feet. He wouldn’t need escorting between classrooms because he would lose his way in a big school, or be bashed about by large teenagers who hadn’t worked out where their bodies began and ended yet. He wouldn’t need to get to know two different adults for each lesson. He wouldn’t have to have a minder at lunchtime because he didn’t understand the money in the cafeteria.

But when he merrily said ‘goodbye’ on the last day of term, he didn’t know that it was ‘Goodbye’. He didn’t know that when he left primary school, so would the TA, because with him went the job. His distress when he couldn’t find her on that first afternoon we had to pop in to retrieve something left behind by the other two was palpable. He has struggled to cope without the undivided attention he certainly doesn’t get at home because there are two other, younger children, but upon which he had come to rely.

So what can I say? It takes a very special person indeed to be the TA for an included child like mine. To my mind it’s not the sort of job that fits into the category of ‘nice little job that fits in with the kids, preferably at their school’. She has to find her way through a complex set of needs and relationships: an anxious mother, an unsure teacher, a needy child. And ultimately she needs to work towards not only doing herself out of a job but also the breakage of her own heart.

TAs, beware.

10 thoughts on “Beware the TA

  1. I found this really moving and honest – I think it is such a hard role for TAs to navigate, but I think from my own experience that many allow themselves to be like ‘surrogate mothers’ who incubate and placate the children they are there to support, and don’t always think in the long term of ‘what is best for him/her/’

    1. This chimes very much with Sam’s experience. He had a number of TAs over the years (the last one really was wonderful – the one who broke his heart); I got very cross about the ‘cuddling to sleep at story time’ incident, but what could I do?

      Thanks for reading.

  2. TAs are expected to be teachers aren’t they, on little more than minimum wage and yes, it’s impossible for us not to feel so emotional about what they do. I really want Natty’s to pull away more and give her autonomy for all the reasons you mention above. Lovely piece.

    1. I think part of the problem is in recruitment. What the children need is a variety of people to work with – what an adult needs is a regular job.
      Not an easy circle to square – or an easy person to find.

      1. In our case, I’m not sure the variety of people to work with is going to work anywhere near as well as one TA with whom our girl could build up a trusting relationship… but as no less than four TAs have been nominated to work with our girl across the week starting in September, I’m about to find out if my fears are unfounded! It’s a tricky balance. Guess it wouldn’t matter if the 4 individually were as good as the one…. we’ll see.

      2. Yes, we are always competing with the label of Down’s syndrome, which seems to override everything for some people – and he definitely got too attached. It was very painful.

        Is your daughter starting secondary?

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