Frontline: Learning support assistant, 2010
This week’s interviewee works as a learning support assistant in a large city comprehensive school
"The acronyms in education are OTT. I am an LSA (learning support assistant) focusing on SEN (special educational needs): I help children with speech and language problems, dyslexia, and those who speak English as an additional language (EAL).
It’s amazing how much work SEN departments do, but they’re often hidden away in a corner so that while everyone knows they are there, no-one is exactly sure what they do. They need to shout a bit louder. The problem is that their achievements are difficult to quantify. It’s easy to see improvements in maths and English, but it’s difficult to measure the effect of supporting a child in school on their wellbeing.
I do really enjoy it, although some days can be wonderful and some days you feel ineffective. It depends on the teachers. If a teacher likes having assistants, it makes it easier to be there because they’ll talk to you; they’ll acknowledge that you’re there. Others will barely acknowledge you. Some of these latter teachers are good; others are poor and could probably use the help – but it’s very difficult to weed out bad employees in schools.
Often it’s the younger teachers who like having an assistant because they want the support, whereas older teachers have it sussed a bit more: they know what they’re doing, they’ve been there for a while, they know how the system works and you’re just there do to their bidding.
I’m going to train to become a teacher next year, and when I qualify, I’d like to have an LSA helping me. I’m more nervous about teaching now than I was at the start of the year: I’ve realised that it takes so much planning, and is often about being able to herd children. It can be like warfare: there’ll be a couple of kids who instantly take against you and try to make your life a misery.
The parents make a huge difference. If you have parents who aren’t interested in their child’s education, their child will probably be poorly behaved. Parents who have had a bad experience of education will be hostile to teachers, and this will be picked up by their children.
It’s very easy to go into parental mode yourself, especially with the younger ones. They can become very attached to you and see you as the person who looks after them in school. If they have a problem, they’ll tell you about things that they won’t tell other people. You suddenly end up with emotional baggage from all these children because they off-load onto you.
So it’s a wonderful job but you can create so much work for yourself. There are really fantastic people who spend their time working hard, often missing lunch breaks to listen to a child’s problems. At the other end of the spectrum, there are LSAs who just sit there at the back.
Many people come into the job because you only require GCSEs and prior experience isn’t necessary. Often, they are the people who get priority for training because they are going to be around for longer. There are many strong LSAs who come into the job straight from university, but because it doesn’t appear that they will be around for as long, the training opportunities aren’t there for them. This might seem to be a good way of preserving resources but the result is a prolonged period of less than totally professional learning support.
In some places you can be left to your own devices, while in others you are strictly monitored and are expected to achieve certain targets. I think we need to have a standardised method of monitoring LSAs. A study published recently showed that LSAs can be detrimental to a child’s education, and this is because the bad ones become a barrier to a child learning; they split people off from the class. There is often a stigma for a child getting specialist help, so this has to be done sensitively. If you can allow a child to remain part of the group and provide extra help that isn’t obvious, this is often better.
Where children come from difficult backgrounds, there can be up to 15 different agencies involved with them, such as housing, social welfare, a mentor in school, the special needs coordinator in charge of the department and an educational psychologist.
They all work for separate departments, and I think there needs to be an overall reduction in the number of agencies: services need to become more streamlined. These services could be provided by fewer bodies, far more effectively. As well as a reduction in the number of agencies, collaboration between agencies should also be encouraged. Often, they will work totally separately and only be pulled together by the child."