Find out about my research and writing on SEND and teaching assistants

Teaching on the cheap?: TAs covering classes

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This study provides a detailed picture of how the on-going challenge of teacher shortages in England and Wales is driving the deployment of teaching assistants (TAs) to cover classes in place of teachers. 

Analyses of data from a survey of nearly 6,000 TAs in mainstream and special schools (conducted in early 2024) found TAs cover classes for up to four hours a week. One in four TAs reported covering classes because schools do not have enough teachers and/or are unable to get external supply teachers. 


The conditions under which TAs cover classes are challenging and cause stress and anxiety. Unlike teachers, TAs routinely cover classes without a lesson plan or support from another TA. The majority of TAs said that covering classes inevitably involves them having to teach pupils – despite national guidance stipulating that cover by TAs should not involve ‘active teaching’.  


Three in four TAs report that their own role is not covered when they cover for teachers. 
Being deployed to cover classes disrupts and diverts TAs from carrying out their regular duties of delivering curriculum interventions and providing classroom support. 

Three-quarters of TAs were not paid an uplift for covering classes, and those that were reported receiving as little as 20 pence extra per hour.

Consequently, TAs feel that undertaking cover negatively impacts the quality of learning and provision for pupils with additional needs, as well as their workload, wellbeing, sense of effectiveness and job satisfaction. TAs feel undervalued and taken for granted. 


The conclusion that TAs actively teach lessons to whole classes has potentially significant real-world consequences and implications for policy and practice. This paper calls for an urgent policy response to what is, in essence, a troubling symptom of the current teacher recruitment and retention crisis. 

This study was funded by Unison.

Research report

Selected media

Teaching assistants: Covid and the cost of living crisis

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Between 2020 and 2022, Rob Webster was involved in two studies that investigated the experiences TAs had of the pandemic, lockdown and the UK cost of living crisis.

The first study, conducted with colleagues at UCL IOE, told a compelling story of how vital TAs were to keeping schools open during lockdown, and keeping children learning.

We conducted a large-scale, national survey of UK TAs. The majority (70%) of the 9,055 respondents worked in primary or early years settings (12% were in secondary and 13% in special schools). The findings revealed just how pivotal TAs were in allowing schools to keep functioning during Covid. It is hard to see how schools could have managed without them. In many ways, they were the unsung heroes of the pandemic.

The second study, conducted with Dr Sophie Hall at the University of Portsmouth, picked up the story of TAs' pandemic experience in September 2021, when schools had fully reopened and were assessing and addressing the extent of learning loss. 

We conducted 22 interviews with TAs, teachers and headteachers from five primary schools in England. The findings revealed that the pandemic has remade the role of the TA – potentially forever. It is now more intense and more varied, with TAs continuing to perform informal duties taken on during lockdown, such as supporting families. 

Conducted during a prevailing crisis over the rising cost of living, the study found that headteachers feared losing TAs to relatively better-paid jobs and being unable to recruit to TA vacancies. TAs themselves reported how they were struggling to make ends meet.

The two studies revealed how essential TAs are to the day-to-day running of schools. The reports call on the government to introduce a comprehensive package of investment in the TA workforce, so that TAs can meet rising costs and schools can retain and upskill their TAs. 

These studies were funded by Unison. 

Journal article

Research reports

Selected media

Citizens' Panel on school inclusion

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Public dialogue (PD) innovations, like citizens’ assemblies, put people at the heart of the decision-making that affects their lives. While they are often designed to be inclusive of people with physical disabilities (in terms of mobility access), very few are designed to accommodate the specific communication and processing needs that people with learning difficulties and/or mental health difficulties often have. This matters because, compared with other participants, these people are more likely to find it harder to keep pace with a fast-moving conversation and to make themselves heard, and are therefore at risk of being excluded from the discussion and decision-making. 


Over 2022/23, Rob was part of a UKRI/RSA-funded project that piloted new and innovative approaches to PD. The project actively involved young people with SEND in the design process. A main aim of the pilot was to learn how PD processes can be modified and augmented to enhance the effective participation of young people with SEND, and ensure their voices and views are reflected in the decisions and outputs. 


The format for the pilot was a Citizens’ Panel of 28 people. Six young people with SEND, four young people without SEND, their parents/carers (n=13); and five education professionals (including teachers) took part. The Panel debated how to make schools more inclusive for young people with SEND. Panellists heard evidence from experts, discussed and deliberated aspects of school life, then made recommendations about what needs to happen to ensure those with SEND feel welcome and can thrive in school. 


The educational experiences of pupils with SEND

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Between 2011 and 2017, I led a landmark research study investigating the everyday educational experiences of pupils with a Statement or Education, Health and Care Plan. Taken together, the Making a Statement (MAST) and the SEN in Secondary Education (SENSE) studies comprise the UK’s largest ever observational study of pupils with SEND. 

The studies looked at the day-to-day experiences of teaching and support for pupils with high-level SEND, either side of the 2014 SEND reforms. The findings raise important points for schools and policymakers about the purpose and processes of inclusion.

Based on data from 1,340 hours of observation and 490 interviews with school staff, parents and pupils, two key findings emerged. First, that the day-to-day experiences of pupils with high-level SEND in mainstream settings is characterised by separation and segregation from the classroom, their teachers and their peers.

And second, over time, the learning and inclusion of these pupils has become highly dependent on the employment and deployment of teaching assistants; an arrangement known to have troubling, though unintended, consequences on learning and participation (see DISS project, below).

The findings from this research are available in a free to download book from UCL Press (link below).


Journal articles (If you're unable to access a paper, please email me for a copy)

  • Webster, R. & Blatchford, P. (2019) Making sense of 'teaching’, 'support’ and 'differentiation’: The educational experiences of pupils with Education, Health and Care Plans and Statements in mainstream secondary schools. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 34(1), pp.98-113.

  • Blatchford, P. & Webster, R. (2018) Classroom contexts for learning at primary and secondary school: Class size, groupings, interactions and special educational needs. British Educational Research Journal, 44(4), pp.681-703.

  • Webster, R. & Blatchford, P. (2015) Worlds apart? The nature and quality of the educational experiences of pupils with a Statement for special educational needs in mainstream primary schools. British Educational Research Journal, 41(2), pp.324-342.

  • Webster, R. & Blatchford, P. (2013) The educational experiences of pupils with a Statement for special educational needs in mainstream primary schools. Results from a systematic observation study. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 28(4), pp.463-479.

  • Webster, R. (2015) The classroom experiences of pupils with special educational needs in mainstream primary schools – 1976 to 2012. What do data from systematic observation studies reveal about pupils’ educational experiences over time? British Educational Research Journal, 41(6), pp.992-1009.

  • Webster, R. (2014) 2014 Code of Practice: How research evidence on the role and impact of teaching assistants can inform professional practice. Educational Psychology & Practice, 30(3), pp.232-237.

  • Baines, E., Blatchford, P. & Webster, R. (2015) The challenges of implementing group work in primary school classrooms and including pupils with special educational needs. Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, 43(1), pp.15-23.

Research reports

Selected media

Special education during Covid

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This study, led by ASK Research and supported by the NfER, revealed how children and young people with SEND who attend specialist settings, experienced profound disruption to their education, well-being and family life during the Covid pandemic and lockdowns.

The first phase of the research took place between June and August 2020, and involved 200 special school and college leaders, and 500 parents. The findings painted a concerning picture of special schools struggling to support pupils and their families during the first stages of the pandemic. We concluded that lessons must be urgently learned from the first lockdown if pupils with SEND and their families are not to be put at further risk. 

The second phase of the study, conducted between April and June 2021, aimed to understand the continuing implications of the pandemic on pupils in specialist settings. We found that the combined effects of Covid and successive lockdowns had left pupils around four months behind in academic development and five months behind with their wider development.

We make several recommendations for government, locally and nationally, on what must be considered for an effective recovery for special schools and pupils.


This study was funded by the Nuffield Foundation. 


Journal article

  • Webster, R., Skipp, A. & Tyers, C. (2022) The reported effects of the pandemic on the academic and developmental progress of pupils in specialist provisions in England. Using estimates from school and college leaders to determine differences between economically disadvantaged and non-economically disadvantaged pupils with special educational needs. Frontiers in Education. doi:

Research reports


Selected media



Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA)

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MITA is designed to mobilise the research evidence on the deployment and impact of teaching assistants (TAs) and to support schools to make improvements to practice. It was developed following the counterintuitive findings from the DISS project (see below).

MITA is an innovative and integrated school improvement and training programme, designed to help schools ensure TAs thrive in their role and contribute to improved outcomes for pupils. It brings together strategic support for school leaders, staff training and a comprehensive suite of guidance, resources and tools.

An independent evaluation of MITA, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation, found positive effects of undertaking the MITA programme. Results from a trial involving 128 primary schools in England found that, compared with a control group, schools made marked improvements to how TAs were deployed and prepared for their classroom roles. Participation in MITA led to a positive impact on pupil engagement and independence, and also improved TAs' confidence.

MITA won the 2019 British Educational Research Association's Public Engagement and Impact team award. Read about MITA's national and international impact here.

For more information about MITA, visit


  • Webster, R., Bosanquet, P., Franklin, S. & Parker, M. (2021) Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants in Primary Schools: A practice guide for school leaders. Oxon: Routledge

  • Bosanquet, P., Radford, J. & Webster, R. (2021) The Teaching Assistant's Guide to Effective Interaction: How to maximise your practice. Second edition. Oxon: Routledge

  • Webster, R., Russell, A. & Blatchford, P. (2016) Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants: Guidance for school leaders and teachers. Second edition. Oxon: Routledge

Journal papers (If you're unable to access a paper, please email me for a copy) 

  • Webster, R., Blatchford, P. & Russell, A. (2013) Challenging and changing how schools use teaching assistants: Findings from the Effective Deployment of Teaching Assistants project. School Leadership and Management, 33(1), pp.78-96.

  • Radford, J., Bosanquet, P., Webster, R., Blatchford, P. & Rubie-Davies, C. (2013) Fostering learner independence through heuristic scaffolding: A valuable role for teaching assistants. International Journal of Educational Research, 63(1), pp.116-126. 

Research reports

The Warnock Inquiry on special education at 40

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In 2018, I was involved in a series of activities that commemorated the 40th anniversary of the landmark inquiry into special education, led by Baroness Mary Warnock.

I helped to curate a special edition of Tes and a public debate at UCL Institute of Education about the Inquiry and its impact. And I was privileged to interview Baroness Warnock about her work and its legacy.

I also edited a collection of essays reflecting on the progress towards to inclusion, and where should we go next.


  • Webster, R. (Ed) (2019) Including Children and Young People with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities in Learning and Life: How far have we come since the Warnock Enquiry – and where do we go next? Oxon: Routledge

Journal article

  • Webster, R. (2019) A blueprint for evidence-based practice? Assessing the Warnock Inquiry’s proposals for research and development in special education 40 years on. Frontiers in Education, 4(7).


  • Reflections on the Warnock Report. Interview with Baroness Mary Warnock – video | podcast

  • IOE Debate: 'What if… we thought anew about how we support special educational needs and disability in schools?'  video | podcast

Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project

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The DISS project is the largest study of teaching assistants (TAs) and other school support staff carried out anywhere in the world. The research (conducted 2003–2009) was named by the British Educational Research Association as one of 40 landmark studies to have had a significant impact on education.

It is the first longitudinal study to analyse the impact of TAs on teachers, teaching and pupils' learning, behaviour and academic progress in everyday classroom settings. The findings have been widely reported in the media and have important implications for teaching, school management, and the education of pupils – especially those with SEN.

Contrary to common-sense views about TA support (more adult support for those who need it most helps them to progress), the DISS project found a negative relationship between the amount of TA support received and the progress made by pupils in mainstream primary and secondary schools. 

The results were not attributable to pupil characteristics, such as prior attainment or SEN status; nor could they be explained in terms of decisions made by TAs. Instead, it was the way schools and teachers deployed and prepared TAs – factors that out of TAs’ control – that best explained the surprising results.


  • Blatchford, P., Russell, A. & Webster, R. (2012) Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants: How research challenges practice and policy. Oxon: Routledge

Journal articles (If you're unable to access a paper, please email me for a copy)

  • Webster, R., Blatchford, P., Bassett, P., Brown, P., Martin, C. & Russell, A. (2011) The wider pedagogical role of teaching assistants. School Leadership and Management, 31(1), pp.3-20.

  • Blatchford, P., Bassett, P., Brown, P., Martin, C., Russell, A. & Webster, R. (2011) The impact of support staff on pupils’ ‘positive approaches to learning’ and their academic progress. British Educational Research Journal, 37(3), pp.443-464.

  • Webster, R., Blatchford, P., Bassett, P., Brown, P., Martin, C. & Russell, A. (2010) Double standards and first principles: Framing teaching assistant support for pupils with special educational needs. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 25(4), pp.319-336.

  • Rubie-Davies, C., Blatchford, P., Webster, R., Koutsoubou, M. & Bassett, P. (2010) Enhancing learning?: A comparison of teacher and teaching assistant interactions with pupils. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 21(4), pp.429-449.

  • Blatchford, P., Bassett, P., Brown, P. & Webster, R. (2009) The effect of support staff on pupil engagement and individual attention. British Educational Research Journal, 35(5), pp.661-686. 

Research reports