We must support our schools’ support staff - Grattan Institute

Education leaders in WA are under pressure to plug teacher shortages and ease teacher workloads. WA is in good company in this regard — the new federal Education Minister, Jason Clare, has made it clear that addressing concerns about the teacher workforce will be the first order of business when education ministers from around the country meet in Canberra on Friday.

Tackling these concerns won’t be easy. Overcoming work pressures in schools will require an overhaul of how schools operate. And this won’t happen if the discussion focuses solely on teachers, ignoring the critical role of the wider workforce in schools.

The first step to addressing workforce concerns is to equip schools with the right staff — not just teachers but also teaching assistants, disability specialists and support staff, psychologists, business managers, and administrative officers.

But simply having more staff isn’t always better. Just as important is supporting different types of staff to work well together as a team, so that the different skills and strengths of each can be woven together to ensure all children and young people thrive at school.

Getting this right would go a long way to easing the workload pressures that are currently swamping our teachers and causing teacher burnout.

Let’s take the example of teaching assistants to illustrate the point. Grattan Institute analysis shows that Australia spends more than $5 billion on teaching assistants each year — about 8 per cent of total school spending. In WA there are more than 16,800 teaching assistants working in schools. This is bigger than the entire WA Police Force, and more than the number of social workers across the state.

Across Australia there has been an almost four-fold increase in the number of teaching assistants since 1990 — well above the increase in the number of students and teachers over that period. In fact, the growth in teaching assistants has been higher in WA than any other State or Territory.

Despite this, we know very little about what teaching assistants do in practice, and how they can best work alongside teachers in Australian schools. We need to pay more attention to this issue, because when teaching assistants are deployed well they are an invaluable asset, but when used poorly they can — through no fault of their own — slow student learning.

Lessons learned from studies overseas show that when teaching assistants are well supported, they can help struggling students achieve an extra four months of learning over the course of a year through targeted literacy and numeracy programs. In fact, some studies show teaching assistants can achieve similar results to teachers when delivering such programs, showing they can be a cost-effective way to help students catch up.

Teaching assistants can also take on tasks and duties that don’t require teaching expertise, such as chasing permission slips, keeping records, and coordinating extra-curricular activities. This can free up teachers to focus on planning, assessment, and time spent teaching in class.

Grattan Institute research shows this a top priority for teachers, who are crying out for more time for teaching. In fact, teachers we surveyed estimated they could save an extra two hours a week to focus on teaching if other school staff took on their extra-curricular activities, such as sports and debating, or yard duty. Other countries do this well, including Switzerland, Sweden, and Germany. Australia should do it better.

But while teaching assistants can be a highly valuable workforce in schools, offering big benefits to teachers and students, there are also risks. This was shown in the United Kingdom, where a big increase in the number of teaching assistants in the early 2000s failed to boost student learning. The problem was that teaching assistants were often given direct responsibility for providing learning support to struggling students, reducing the amount of time these students spent with their teacher, which lead to worse academic results. But with the right training and supports for teachers and teaching assistants, this risk can be avoided.

Our political leaders need to step up and make sure the wider workforce in schools, including teachers and teaching assistants, are getting the training and support they need.

First, governments should collect better information on how teaching assistants and other staff are working with teachers and students, and what tasks they are (or are not) being given.

Second, governments should fund pilot programs to evaluate the best ways for teaching assistants and other professionals to support teachers and students. We need to identify what works best, and then spread that knowledge across all schools. The NSW Government’s commitment last week to test different ways of using administrative staff in schools is one example of the types of pilots that are possible.

Being smarter about the way WA schools use all the skills and strengths of the broad range of staff they have would be a win-win-win: it would give staff more job satisfaction, it would ease pressures on teachers, and it would boost student performance.

Julie Sonnemann

Principal Advisor Education
Julie is the Principal Advisor Education at Grattan. She has significant experience in education policy and system design, and has co-authored several high profile reports on effective teaching, professional learning, equity and funding.

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economics policy.

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