Tag Archives: Teaching Assistants

The Tale of Max Tasen

Anonymous guest blog.  Needs no introduction.

Max Tasen sat back and waited for his name to appear in lights.  Various names appeared in red, accompanied by a buzz, and hobbling men, sneezing women and screaming children rose one by one,  and obediently made their way to the designated consulting rooms. Max sat, and his neck began to ache as he continued to look up at the sign above Reception.

Eventually a kindly looking lady appeared carrying a clipboard.  “Come with me,” she said.  She smiled as she took Max’ coat and briefcase; Max followed her down a long corridor where there was a  small round table and four chairs.

“Please sit down,” said the lady, gesturing to one of the chairs before popping her spectacles on the end of her nose and looking at the clipboard.  “Ah… I see you’ve just moved into the area and our GPs note you have complex health needs.  Here … have a paracetamol.”

Max stared in disbelief.  “If I thought a paracetamol was the solution to my complex health needs, I assure you I wouldn’t be here.  Have you got my medical records?”

“Not exactly. Just a few notes from Doctor asking me to look after you.  Would you like a cup of tea then?”

“No I do not want a cup of tea, thank you'” replied Max, who was by now getting rather cross by this well-meaning but rather irritating individual.  “Can you please explain to me what is going on here?”

“I’m Maureen and  I’m here to look after you this afternoon.”
“So you’re a doctor? A nurse?”

“Er no,” replied Maureen, “but I’ve been here years and spent a lot of time watching the doctors.”

“But you’re not a doctor.”
“No. I’m a doctor’s helper. You see this practice are under great pressure at the moment to reach targets for seeing a certain amount of patients per day in routine appointments and I’m afraid to say your complex needs mean that you don’t fit the criteria for a routine appointment,” explained Maureen.  “So I’m going to look after you. Are you sure you don’t want a paracetamol?”

“Quite sure thank you,” replied Max.  He leaned towards Maureen.  He frowned slightly. “Let me get this straight… You’re looking after me because the doctors are too busy with routine appointments?”

“Yes,” nodded Maureen smiling.

“Do you have any qualifications to, er, ‘Look after me’?”

“I have English and Maths ‘O’ levels and I never miss an episode of Holby City'” said Maureen proudly.

“So when do I get to see a proper doctor?” asked Max.

“I’m afraid I’m not in a position to answer that at the moment; like I said, all our doctors are flat out with routine appointments.”

“Am I to sit in this corridor all afternoon?” asked Max. “Aren’t you even going to take me to a consulting room?”

“Look, Mr Tasen,'” began Maureen (whose kindly demeanour was beginning to thin on account of the fact she’d never before had a patient who’d questioned her position as a doctor’s helper), “you parked in the routine patients’ car-park, you sat in their waiting room.  Really Mr Tasen, we go to great lengths to ensure all our patients feel part of this practice – even those with complex health needs,” and with a huff she bustled off back down the corridor towards the Reception.

“Where are you going?” Max called after her.

Maureen turned and looked scornfully at him.  “The other two patients with complex health  needs have arrived; you really didn’t think you’d have me all to yourself did you?”

Speak Truth to Power part two

So, having declared that I don’t really do details, here’s part two.  I seem to have come up with a few.  If you have anything to add, please so so in the comments.

SENCOs

These people need to be on SLT in a school.  That needs to be added to the Code.  I am also concerned that the people responsible for co-ordinating SEND in post-16 colleges do not need to be teachers.  It isn’t a purely administrative post.

Funding

It seems to me that there ought to be some rules, based on agreed good practise, around about how the funding for SEND can be spent, and some sort of scrutiny from someone that it is having the desired effect.  It seems clear that just spending the money on a 1-1 TA isn’t the answer, and neither is putting the money into one big melting pot.  There is too much misunderstanding of what it is that children and young people actually need and how to go about it.  Or too much half understanding, and too much writing things down on digital paper so that you can be seen to be doing the right thing even if reality says different.

Training

This needs to be looked at wholesale.  We have an inclusive system.  Whatever we think about that we have got to the stage where we know that just putting vulnerable kids in mainstream settings isn’t exactly the end of the story, and we need to make sure that all of our teachers – and indeed all of the people who work in schools, from the secretary to the caretaker – have the knowledge to help them do their jobs in the school community.

For a start we need there to be more than a passing nod to SEND when trainee teachers are learning how to do the job.  Teaching children with SEND is the most difficult and challenging part of our job (in my view), it’s worth spending time going over the main areas at the very least.  I would suggest spending some time at a special school local to them, as well as really good training on reading and ‘what to do when things go wrong’.  I would also strongly suggest that there is specific training on working with parents as well as how to work with TAs and other professionals.

Teachers need to be aware of their legal responsibilities as far as SEND is concerned, as, at present, I’m not sure that all of them do.  I might be tempted to insist that a part of any INSET programme is devoted to SEND and what teachers can do at classroom level.

TAs

Where to start here?  Some unified standards and proper training and qualifications would be nice.  Oh.

School organisation

I have learned that there are some children who do not fare very well in mainstream education.  They are just too vulnerable, and their needs are too great.  I know this because one of them lives in my house.  He is my son.  However, while he is incredibly fortunate that he lives in a town where there is a special alternative that suits his needs, I know that this is not the case for many vulnerable children.  This needs looking at.

All our young people need and deserve an education, so we need to look at how this can be achieved.  Not all special schools are the same, and just because there is a special school nearby it does not automatically mean that a child with a specific need will fit in there.

Communication

Until I became a parent and my children started at school I didn’t really understand how spectacularly bad schools are at communicating with parents.  And now that I’m thinking about the national picture I can see that this lack of communication is system wide.  Teachers get stuck in next door classrooms.  Schools in the same town have little clue about what is going on in their neighbourhood, or the head teachers might, but not the teachers.  And special needs provision is much the same.  Do mainstream schools know what their special counterparts are up to and vice versa?  Are there mechanisms for sharing good and bad news?

I think it would be really useful to research who are the gatekeepers for information about SEND in our schools.  Who gets the emails?  Who gets the circulars?  How does information sharing – or not sharing – work?  If we know this, then we can have a look at how to make it better and make changes.

Research needs to be much more widely disseminated – we need to look at how to do that effectively too.

Leadership

Oh, where to start with this one?  We need school leaders who are committed to SEND and making schools a great place for all.  Where they lead, other people will follow.  But to be honest, I’m not sure that it is very wise to wait until those leaders appear out of the ether.  Training for school leaders needs to include SEND, and we need to give people time to talk around the issues.  SEND is an emotional minefield, and people need this reflection time on a subject that touches us all deeply.

All teachers are leaders – in fact anyone who works in a school is –  and they need training not just in how to work with children and young people, but adults too.  I hadn’t the first clue, when I started teaching at age 22, about how to work with a TA, and over twenty years later there is a positively astronomical number of them in our schools.  Training for teachers in their responsibilities towards TAs and what they are and aren’t expected to do would be very useful.

If schools are being badly led as far as SEND is concerned, what do we do to highlight it?  In fact, if this is the case generally, where do teachers turn?   Help us do better.

Thanks for reading.

The Primary Lie

Or, things ain’t what they used to be.

I went to a parents’ evening the other night.  It’s not usually something I look forward to, seeing as there is too much hanging around sitting on too-small chairs for my liking, but I was keen to go to this one.  This one was my first as the parent of a mainstream secondary school child.  And I was impressed.

The chairs were the right size, there were plenty of people shuttling around who I knew from toddler group days (oh, my, haven’t they grown), the heating was on nice and high (a little too high in one room) and, joy of joys, not every teacher was younger than me.  (When we went to have a look round it was rather disconcerting to find myself a good fifteen years older than some of the young whippersnappers who have the temerity to work there.)  And there, sat in the corner, demonstrating a refreshing lack of respect for the data, was a Proper Teacher.  A proper teacher with a proper tweedy jacket and a proper beardy beard (none of this bushy business the young folk seem so inexplicably fond of for this gentleman) who taught a proper subject.  Mine.

The conversation between us dashed about, leaving my younger son somewhat squirmy and my elder nonplussed and I got up from the table feeling like I had reconnected with my tribe.  Here was the sort of teacher I recognised.  His enthusiasm for his subject, and his love of teaching children, in particular ones, like my son, who got his jokes (although he sees nothing funny in calling him Mr T), fizzed from him.  Here, thought I, here was the Real Deal.  This man would carry my son, and other children like him, on a journey into academic study on the coat tails of his infectious enthusiasm.  They would be inspired.

But it was more than that.  Every single teacher gave me the strongest impression that they knew my son.  Not only did they know who he was, he wasn’t a faceless speck amongst the many floating through their classrooms on a weekly basis; to them, he was a person with strengths and weaknesses that they knew and cared about.  It was both a pleasure and a relief.

You see, those big secondaries are just so different to Primary.  Sometimes I feel as if A has stepped onto another planet.  There, he shuttles from room to room, here, in my world, they are based in one, with little to no chance that they will lose their pen or their ruler, or anything else they need for learning.  There he has access to specialist classrooms and teachers with in-depth knowledge of their subjects that we just don’t.  Our modes of operation and our specialisms are, well, different.

In primary it doesn’t take til half way through the school year before we have the evening that lets the parents know how they are getting on, whether there’s anything we ought to be communicating between us.  We get to know them so much quicker, so much better in primary.  I mean, as Teachers of Everything, we see the children in a much more holistic way.  We’re the ones who sort out the playtime squabbles, make sure they’ve eaten their lunch, direct lessons on ‘how to be good friends’.  We make connections with their learning across the curriculum, from Maths to Science to Music to English; we see it all, we are in charge of it all; we can comment on it all.

Well, apart from PE.  We might not teach that if it falls in our PPA time.  Or Science, or D&T.  Or French.  Any of those defined subjects it’s easy for an unqualified teacher, but specialist nevertheless to take.  Like Music, if we have a dedicated music teacher, because playing an instrument doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite of a primary life any more, what with all that you can do with the internet and an interactive whiteboard these days.

Oh, and those children who go to another set for English and Maths.  We can’t really talk about them because they aren’t in our set.  What with sorting our own groups out, we haven’t time to go chasing round the school finding out what they’re doing for other people and what they think of them, no.  Or the children who go out for an intervention with the TA.  It’s a pity that we don’t get much time to talk about what she’s doing out there all that time, but, after all, she’s not paid to be here before or after the children, even though she does, and what can you do about that?  What matters is that the children are getting the support, doesn’t it?

Oh, and there’s those ones who go out to work with her where it’s quieter and they can get more attention, it’s so easy to overlook them, you know the ones with SEN.  I mean they spend so much time out there and the TA is so capable, so experienced (she was here years before we were, back in the days when a classroom assistant washed the pots and put displays up), she knows them so well, she always gets such lovely work out of them and it leaves us classroom teachers more time to devote to the rest of the class, to give the others the attention they, too, deserve.  The classroom is so nice and quiet when they are out with her, I sometimes forget they are there, the rest of us are so busy.

But still.  We still know them better than they do.  Don’t we?

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.

But.

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.