“Addressing the international data gap on teaching assistants”, by Rob Webster.

written by: Rob Webster published 2021-05-12 updated 2021-05-13

The international data tell us about almost nothing about education paraprofessionals, known as teaching assistants or teacher aides (TAs). As we approach International Education Support Personnel (ESP) day, UK academic, Rob Webster, considers how the drive to successfully including children with special educational needs in mainstream schools may depend on significantly improving our understanding of TAs’ work and experiences.

In many schools and classrooms across the globe, the drive towards the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) in mainstream schools has become contingent on the creation and utilisation of a relatively new paraprofessional workforce, known variously as teaching assistants or teacher aides (TAs). It is claimed that in many countries, policies of mainstreaming pupils with SEN rely heavily on this ‘non-teaching’ workforce (Masdeu Navarro, 2015). Yet, as research commissioned by Education International has found, ESPs – a group among which TAs are prominent – ‘frequently do not receive adequate remuneration, nor are they sufficiently supported to access professional development, training and accreditation’ (Principe, 2018, p22). Perhaps not surprisingly, they tend to feel that their contributions to fostering inclusive learning environments are undervalued.

Yet all despite this – and perhaps even because of this – the intertwining of inclusion and TAs has solidified the view that TAs have become ‘the mortar in the brickwork … hold[ing] schools together in numerous and sometimes unnoticed ways’ (Webster et al., 2021, p2). Its relative intuitiveness – more individualised support for pupils that struggle most – is arguably why it is the model of choice for education systems and schools striving for inclusion. The implication that it is achieved at relatively low cost (TAs’ salaries are much lower than teachers’ salaries) goes some way perhaps to explaining why it has replicated itself more successfully than just about any other model.

Remarkably, however, alongside this expansion, there has been virtually no effort to collect macro-level data on the characteristics, role and contribution of TAs and their relationship to and impact on inclusion. The most influential international study on schools and classrooms, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), is valued by policymakers and researchers of advanced nations for the richness of its data and the detailed insights it provides. It, however, has vanishing little say about TAs.

The third and most recent wave of TALIS from 2018 – which involved over 275,000 respondents from 31 countries (OECD, 2021a) – stated that ‘teacher aides [and] pedagogical support staff … were not considered to be teachers and, thus, not part of the TALIS international target population’ (OECD, 2021b). Leaving aside whether there is, or there ought to be, an equivalence between TAs and teachers, the decision to exclude TAs from TALIS matters. Not just, I would argue, in and of itself, but because other high-level analyses of education rely on the data it collects, such as the authoritative Global Education Monitoring (GEM) annual report which is hosted and published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

The focus of the 2020 GEM report was inclusion, yet it was unable to report much at all about TAs because ‘data on teaching assistants is limited, even in high-income countries’ (UNESCO, 2020, p300). The report concluded that ‘comparable international data on inclusion-related use of support personnel are not generally available’ (UNESCO, 2020, p306).

Elsewhere, a rare international survey, commissioned by Education International, of the characteristics, employment and working conditions of just over 3,000 ESP concluded: ‘there are significant gaps in the knowledge and understanding of ESP: who they are, what they do, and what they need to do their jobs effectively’ (Butler, 2019, p1).

If recent trends are anything to go by, and as the near-global drive towards inclusion continues, large amounts of public money will be spent on employing more and more TAs. In England, for example, school census data show that 28% of the school workforce are employed as TAs (and 35% of the primary schools’ workforce) (Department for Education, 2021). However, there are no public data on what this costs or to what extent it represents value for taxpayers’ money. Such questions can be both reductive and a rather blunt way of quantifying TAs’ highly nuanced contributions to education. Nonetheless, these are the kinds of questions that motivate policymakers and implies a prima facia case for national governments to show as much interest in the working lives, practices and perspectives of TAs as they do in those of teachers.

For this reason, in a paper for a new special issue of the European Journal of Special Needs Education on TAs, guest editors Anke de Boer (University of Groningen) and I, call for the OECD to extend TALIS in ways that reflect, and are proportionate to, the global trend towards employing and deploying TAs in educational settings (Webster & de Boer, 2021).

Many of the themes selected for inclusion in the 2018 TALIS survey are relatable to the lives of TAs: instructional practices; professional practices; initial preparation for role; school climate; job satisfaction; human resource issues; stakeholder relations; career opportunities; professional responsibility; and autonomy. At the more basic, but nonetheless essential, descriptive level, a survey of TAs would be able to track demographic trends relating to equality, diversity and representation. Crucial, you would think, for a role synonymous with inclusion.

The GEM reports ‘serve as a foundation for evidence-based advocacy to promote progress towards SDG 4’ (the fourth Sustainable Development Goal on education) (OECD, 2021c). The 2020 report on inclusion points to how a broader ‘shortage of data on teachers’ from countries that are not included in TALIS represents one of three ‘data gaps remain[ing] in key areas of the SDG 4 monitoring framework’ (UNESCO, 2020, p198). The macro-data gap relating to TAs can be seen as part of the same issue. Providing and sharing the robust evidence needed to underpin policymaking and practice, and to hold world leaders to account, are essential if we are to achieve SDG 4. Progress will be all the slower, if not unworkable, without a coordinated and consolidated data collection effort that incorporates and reflects the role and contribution of TAs.

In our paper, we argue that the potentially transformative ideas for improving policy and practice in relation to TAs exist in the skilful accumulation, harmonisation and utilisation of data at the macro, meso and micro levels. Expanding an existing data collection effort that is funded by, and maps education labour force trends in, the world’s most advanced economies seems to us a good place to start.

Given their centrality to establishing and sustaining inclusive education environments, I would echo a message from earlier Education International-commissioned research, which argues for ESPs’ professional experiences and needs to be included in future consultations about their work and role (Principe, 2018). The next cycle of TALIS, due in 2024, is perhaps the first opportunity to collaborate with TAs (and other stakeholders) on how policymakers should interpret and understand their role and contribution, and to pilot approaches to collecting the kind of data that have impressively – and in relatively short order – transformed and enhanced our understanding of teachers and teaching.


Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.