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

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 is currently being prepared for a book for UCL Press.


  • Webster, R. (2022) The inclusion illusion  How children with special educational needs experience mainstream schools. London: UCL Press. Download an e-copy of this book for free via UCL Press.

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

'Unsung heroes': Teaching assistants' role during Covid

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During the Winter 2021 lockdown period, Rob Webster and colleagues at UCL IOE conducted a large-scale, national survey of TAs working in schools in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The findings tell a compelling story about how vital TAs have been to keeping schools open during lockdowns, and keeping children learning.

The majority of our 9,055 respondents worked in primary or early years settings (70%), 12% were in secondary, and 13% in special schools. The key findings are:

1. TAs have been pivotal in allowing schools to keep functioning during the pandemic. It is hard to see how schools could have managed without them. During the Winter 2021 lockdown, almost half of TAs covered staff absences, enabling schools to stay open to vulnerable and key worker children. The majority of TAs (88%) supported vulnerable and keyworker children in school. Just over half managed a whole class or bubble on their own.

2. TAs have played a vital role in supporting pupil learning in schools during successive lockdowns. In many ways they are the unsung heroes of the pandemic. In addition to leading classes, TAs continued to offer more targeted support. Half of TAs provided differentiated support to individuals working on tasks; around a third delivered targeted interventions; a third were running one-to-one and small group support sessions; and a third were involved in bespoke support to pupils with a support plan. 

3. TAs on the frontline felt vulnerable as they worked in school during the lockdown. The risks of exposure to Covid played on their minds. The majority of TAs reported that, as well as supporting learning, they had been responsible for minimising transmission risks by cleaning equipment and furniture, and reminding pupils to maintain social distancing. Instances where TAs were expected to take prime responsibility for working with children on site during the lockdown led to sharp criticism.

4. TAs have played an important role in enabling children to carry on learning purposefully at home. Though largely unnoticed, TAs undertook a range of additional tasks, such as preparing hard copy learning packs; liaising with families; participating in live streamed lessons; checking pupils had completed work set remotely; and offering support to pupils having difficulties with home learning. However, almost four in ten TAs had been asked to do new things without training.

5. Helping pupils readjust to school is at the forefront of TAs’ minds as schools begin to reopen fully. Many TAs thought that the biggest impacts of the disruption would fall on the pupils they typically support. TAs thought that addressing pastoral care, pupil wellbeing and rebuilding school routines would be very important following lockdown.

6. The Covid crisis has underlined the value of the contribution TAs make to their schools. Their insights and knowledge should be drawn on in the effort to rebuild education. Nearly nine in ten TAs agreed that “people underestimated the difficulties the pandemic created for schools”. Yet, despite the central contribution TAs have made to keeping schools open and functioning, barely a quarter considered that their own school had become more aware of their role in supporting pupils and families. 

Our research reveals how essential TAs are to the day-to-day running of schools. This is true in more normal times as well as during a pandemic. If we are to build a more resilient education system going forward, then their voices need to be heard. The unique understanding and clear view of what matters most within their communities, which they have gained from working on the frontline, should be respected and recognised.

This study was funded by Unison. 

Research report

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