Pupils with most serious special needs spend too much time apart from their classmates and teachers

08 February 2013

Pupils with the most acute special educational needs (SEN) spend over a quarter of their week away from their class, teacher and peers, according to new research from the Institute of Education (IOE) and funded by the Nuffield Foundation. This "high degree of separation" means that both their education and their social development suffer.

Rosearchers Rob Webster and Professor Peter Blatchford say this is because teaching assistants (TAs), rather than teachers, take on much of the responsibility for devising alternative work programmes and teaching pupils with "statements of special needs" – often on a one-to-one basis. Some 3% of children have a statement, a legal document that sets out a child's SEN and the provision they should receive to meet their needs.

The findings from the Making a Statement (MaSt) project are timely, as they come as the Government publishes its draft Children and Families Bill. The Bill includes a proposal to replace SEN statements with wider Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs).

The researchers found that compared to average attaining pupils, children with statements in mainstream schools spent less time in lessons with the rest of the class, and were more than three times more likely to interact with TAs than teachers.

In many cases TAs were found to put together alternative curricula and prepare intervention programmes for these pupils. They also had the main responsibility for explaining and modifying tasks set for the class by the teacher, even though they often had little or no opportunity before lessons to meet or prepare with the teacher.

Teachers, on the other hand, rarely had as high a level of involvement in planning and teaching statemented pupils as TAs. This is very likely to be connected to the gap in many teachers' knowledge about how to meet the needs of the particular statemented pupil in their class.

The researchers also found that pupils with statements had half as many interactions with their classmates compared with other pupils. "Furthermore, where opportunities were created, statemented pupils tended to find themselves in situations with pupils with similar difficulties with their social skills", says the report.

The project explored the day-to-day experiences of 9 and 10 year olds with statements – a topic on which there is little systematically gathered information. The research team shadowed 48 pupils with statements for a week each, and collected nearly 40,000 minute-by-minute observations in 900 lessons. They also interviewed 200 teachers, TAs, special educational needs coordinators (SENcos) and parents/carers.

Webster and Blatchford recommend that – rather than specifying the number of hours of support a child is entitled to, as statements do – the new EHCPs should set out concrete teaching strategies designed to meet carefully defined outcomes. "The specification on the statement of a number of hours of TA support seemed to get in the way of thinking through appropriate approaches for pupils with pronounced learning difficulties in mainstream primary schools".

In 2009, the five-year study Deployment and Impact of Support Staff in Schools (DISS) study by the same team (the largest study of TAs worldwide) showed that children who received the most help from TAs consistently made less progress than similar pupils who received less TA support. This was in part because these children, often those with SEN, received less attention from teachers and more from TAs.

"In common with the DISS project, the MaSt study provides further evidence that schools need to fundamentally rethink the common approaches to the way TAs are deployed and prepared, if they are to get the best use from this valuable resource", say Webster and Blatchford.

Their recent book, Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants, based on their extensive research, provides much needed guidance on this topic.


For more information or to speak to the researchers please contact the IOE press office: James Russell, press assistant: 020 7911 or j.russell@ioe.ac.uk or Diane Hofkins, press officer d.hofkins@ioe.ac.uk.

Notes to editors

The Making a Statement (MaSt) project was designed to explore the teaching, support and interactions experienced by pupils with statements of SEN. Findings are based on results from extensive minute-by minute observations (650 hours of observation of nearly 900 lessons) and detailed case studies involving 48 pupils with statements of SEN for moderate learning difficulties or behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. Observations of 151 average attaining 'control' pupils provide a reference point for comparison. Case studies were based largely on interviews with nearly 200 teachers, TAs, SEN Coordinators and parents/carers two local authorities in the South East and four boroughs in London. All data were collected over the 2011/12 school year, and involved researchers shadowing pupils from  in Year 5 over one week each.