Find out about my research and writing on SEND and teaching assistants
The educational experiences of pupils with SEND
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).
- Webster, R. (2022) The inclusion illusion How children with special educational needs experience mainstream schools. London: 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/08856257.2018.1458474
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3454
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3144
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/08856257.2013.820459
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3181
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/02667363.2014.917401
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004279.2015.961689
- Webster, R. & Blatchford, P. (2017) The Special Educational Needs in Secondary Education study. Final report
- Webster, R. & Blatchford, P. (2013) The Making a Statement study. Final report
- Webster, R. (2017) The myth of inclusion –Tes, 30 June 2017
Teaching assistants: Covid and the cost of living crisis
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.
- Hall, S. & Webster, R. (2022) From Covid to the cost of living: The crises remaking the role of teaching assistants
- Moss, G., Webster, R., Bradbury, A. & Harmey, S. (2021) Unsung heroes: The role of teaching assistants and classroom assistants in keeping schools functioning during lockdown
- Schools in England risk losing TAs to supermarkets over ‘chronic’ low pay –The Guardian, 8 September 2022
- Teaching assistants 'unsung heroes' of pandemic, study shows –The Guardian, 1 April 2021
- Teaching assistants 'are the unsung heroes of Covid' –Tes, 1 April 2021
Special education during Covid
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.
- 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: https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2022.866519
- Skipp, A., Tyers, C., Hopwood, V., Rutt, S., Sharp, C. & Webster, R. (2021) Special schools’ and colleges’ experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic: Summer 2021. Full findings
- Skipp, A., Hopwood, V., Tyers, C., Webster, R. & Rutt, S. (2021) The reported effects of the pandemic on pupils in special schools and colleges and what they need now
- Skipp, A., Hopwood, V. & Webster, R., with Julius, J. & McLean, D. (2021) Special education during lockdown: Providers' and parents' experiences. Research summary
- Skipp, A., Hopwood, V. & Webster, R., with Julius, J. & McLean, D. (2021) Special education in lockdown: The experiences of school and college providers and families of pupils with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs)
- Skipp, A., & Hopwood, V., with Julius, J. & McLean, D (2020) Special education during lockdown: Returning to schools and colleges in September
- Covid: 8 challenges facing special schools –Tes, 14 July 2021
- Special school pupils 'four months behind in learning' due to pandemic –Children and Young People Now, 14 July 2021
- Covid: ‘Forgotten’ special school teachers ‘struggling' –Tes, 3 February 2021
- Majority of pupils with EHCPs left without health or social care support in lockdown, says report – Schools Week, 3 February 2021
Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA)
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 maximisingtas.co.uk.
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/13632434.2012.724672
- Radford, J., Bosanquet, P., Webster, R. & Blatchford, P. (2014) Scaffolding learning for independence: Clarifying teacher and TA roles for children with SEN. Learning and Instruction, 36, pp.1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2014.10.005
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2013.02.010
- Radford, J., Blatchford, P. & Webster, R. (2011) Opening up and closing down: Comparing teacher and TA talk in mathematics lessons. Learning and Instruction, 21(5), pp.625-635. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2011.01.004
- Sharples, J., Webster, R. & Blatchford, P. (2018) Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants. Guidance report. Second edition. London: Education Endowment Foundation
The Warnock Inquiry on special education at 40
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
- 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). https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2019.00017
- IOE Debate: 'What if… we thought anew about how we support special educational needs and disability in schools?' video | podcast
- The Warnock Report into Special Educational Needs 40 Years On – video of talk at University of Cambridge Primary School, Sept 2019
- Webster, R. (2018) Why the Warnock report still matters today –Tes, May 2018
- Webster, R. (2018) Our route to 2026 is a challenge, not a crisis, but we need to act now (£) –Tes, May 2018
Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project
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. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13632434.2010.540562
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/01411921003734645
- 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. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08856257.2010.513533
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/09243453.2010.512800
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/01411920902878917
- Blatchford, P., Bassett, P., Brown, P., Koutsoubou, M., Martin, C., Russell, A., Webster, R. & Rubie-Davies, C. (2009) The Deployment and Impact of Support Staff in Schools. Final report. London: DCSF
- Blatchford, P., Bassett, P., Brown, P., Koutsoubou, M., Martin, C., Russell, A. & Webster, R. (2009) The Deployment and Impact of Support Staff in Schools. Characteristics, working conditions and job satisfaction. Final report. London: DCSF