Equity in Education during COVID-19 and the Danger of “Microwave Equity”

Equity in Education during COVID-19 and the Danger of “Microwave Equity”

The last two years have been quite challenging for the world and for educators. First, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world for a while, and many learning institutions were closed as a result of the pandemic.[1] At the same time, the increasing strength of the anti-racism movement from the United States and across the world has highlighted the importance of equity, inclusion, and equality in education in such a time as this. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent school closure globally led to 1.6 billion children[2]missing out on education, which has further amplified the inequalities inherent in many education systems. In many regions around the world, for example, in Europe, groups affected by the COVID-19 pandemic on education may include students of minority migrant background, new language learners, disabled students, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and others (LGBTQ+) students. My PhD research study on developing culturally inclusive teaching and learning environments in Ireland, funded by the Irish Research Council postgraduate scholarship and Galway Doctoral Research scholarship programmes, has caused me to reflect deeply on the concepts of equity, inclusion, and equality in education. Furthermore, my research and work with student-teachers, teachers, parents of minority migrant backgrounds, in Ireland and beyond, has further revealed the importance of an understanding that is all the more urgent in the context of the inequalities that will exasperate equitable and quality education for all learners in the era of COVID-19.

What is the difference between equality and equity?

The image to the left is a graphical representation of equality, while the image to the right represents equity 
Image credit: Maryam Abdul-Kareem

 

It is quite challenging to unpack the concepts of equality and equity in education, particularly the differences between these two concepts. It is critical for teachers to know the differences between these two concepts to ensure equitable learning for all students, especially in a time of crisis.

In the left image, everyone is provided with equal support to watch the football game. In the right image, everyone is equipped with differential supports that allow equitable access to the game.

It should be noted that understanding the differences between equity and equality is not straightforward. It is layered with many complexities. Therefore, the above image provides a basic representation of the differences between equity and equality.

In summary, equity is based on needs, that is, responding to students’ individual or specific needs in our classrooms to ensure quality teaching and learning. In contrast, equality is based on fairness, which means being fair to all, without acknowledging the additional challenges faced by some.

UN Sustainability Goals and

the importance of equity and inclusion in education

Many education systems around the world are concerned with the issues of equity and inclusion in policy and practice. However, more work needs to be done in developing and implementing equity and inclusion policies and practices in education, particularly in the current COVID-19 crisis. Equity can be explained as providing students with personalised support that overcomes potential hurdles such as poverty and minoritised cultural backgrounds.[3]While inclusion in education implies that all students, irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds or disabilities, are accepted and fully catered to in mainstream school environments. In other words, ‘inclusion is about all students belonging’ in a classroom.[4] The concepts of equity and inclusion in education are not new. Global educational goals have long sought to advance the principles of equity and inclusion in education systems internationally. For example, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 requires countries worldwide to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030. The SDGs were passed in 2015 by United Nations member states as a holistic approach to ensure that countries around the world achieve equitable and sustainable development in different sectors of society by 2030. [5] However, recent reports by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) tasked with tracking the world’s progress in achieving SDG 4 presented that it is unlikely for the world to meet the targets of SDG 4 by 2030.[6]Unfortunately, the current humanitarian emergency of COVID-19 has further validated the reality of the findings of this new report on the impact of the pandemic in achieving the SDGs[7]

The role of teachers in addressing equity and inclusion in their classrooms

Moving forward, teachers can begin to address equity and inclusion in education with support from other educational stakeholders to ensure equitable learning for all students and developing peer accountability systems. Secondly, teachers can build better working relationships with students and their guardians/parents. Third, they can commit to continuous professional development programmes. Finally, teachers can promote equity and inclusion in their classrooms during this COVID-19 pandemic and beyond by constantly checking ‘whether what they are doing enables or empowers the students to help improve them.’[8]

Avoiding the quick fix of ‘Microwave Equity’

Cornelius Minor, a US-based educator, coined the term ‘Microwave Equity,’ which means teachers and educators attempting to achieve equity quickly or overnight. Instead, he warns, the work on equity in education takes time and patience. In his book, We Got This, Minor argued that to be equitable and inclusive, teachers need to intentionally listen to kids in achieving equity in the classroom, decentralise power by empowering students’ voices, and do the self-work without blaming students.

The push to introduce more equity in education is badly needed, but it comes at a time when teachers are already facing significant challenges and additional responsibilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Equity and the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic

Teachers are crucial to achieving equity and inclusion in education, and the current crisis has further affected teaching and learning. The pandemic has denied millions of learners access to equitable and quality education.[9] Teachers, to a large extent, are critical stakeholders in helping to manage the crisis. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has further changed the nature of teachers’ work, e.g., many teachers were expected to switch to online teaching quickly. The burden of additional responsibilities placed on teachers in a crisis is not new. Research has shown that all humanitarian emergencies have affected teachers’ work. For example, in post-conflict Liberia, teachers’ responsibilities included serving as second parents, humanitarians, role models, parents, counsellors, guardians, unifiers, and psychologists to help students affected with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). [10] From the case of Liberia and in similar contexts, teachers can be adequately supported and performance improved when education stakeholders possess a deep understanding of the factors that limit their capacity to function effectively.[11] Therefore, placing the responsibility for achieving equity and inclusion solely on teachers is problematic. Educational stakeholders and the entire education system must be involved to make equitable and quality learning for all students a reality, even in the current era of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, school leaders in the United Kingdom took proactive steps and initiatives to provide support for teachers and promote sustainable good practices during the global pandemic. The research study finds that school leaders developed effective and pragmatic approaches to engage other stakeholders such as parents, pupils and policymakers, allowing learning to continue during the pandemic.[12] It is hoped that more attention will be given to having discussions on what equity and inclusion in education really mean in different contexts and levels of education. For example, regional educational research associations such as European Educational Research Association (EERA)  can engage existing platforms such as the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER) conferences, within their network for educational researchers to continue to engage in discussion and research on issues of equity and inclusion in European education systems and globally. This knowledge and understanding will undoubtedly help concerned educational stakeholders working on equity and inclusion in education to address the challenges of ensuring an even playing field for all learners.
Seun B. Adebayo

Seun B. Adebayo

PhD Researcher, Research Supervisor, Teaching Assistant, NUI Galway

Seun B. Adebayo is currently a PhD Researcher, Research Supervisor and Teaching Assistant at the School of Education, National University of Ireland Galway, Ireland (NUI Galway). His PhD study explores developing culturally inclusive teaching and learning environments in Irish schools.

Aside from his research study, Seun organises workshops on culturally responsive pedagogies for student-teachers at NUI Galway.

His research interests include education policy, teacher education and professional development, culturally responsive pedagogy, equity and inclusion in education, progressive education reforms, practitioner/action research, education in conflict/post-conflict contexts, and quality education.

Seun has extensive work and research experiences with Aflatoun International, UNESCO HQ., UNESCO Office in Monrovia (Liberia), the European Research Council Executive Agency of the European Commission, the UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti, VSO International, Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE), Education Development Trust and UNDP in New York.

ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Seun-Adebayo

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Royalseun

Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.co.uk/citations?user=anOwtUQAAAAJ&hl=en

References and Further Reading

[1] UNESCO (2021). Education: From disruption to recovery. https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse 

[2] Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (2022). Prioritizing learning during COVID-19. https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/114361643124941686/pdf/Recommendations-of-the-Global-Education-Evidence-Advisory-Panel.pdf 

[3] Waterford (2020). Why Understanding Equity vs Equality in Schools Can Help You Create an Inclusive Classroom. https://www.waterford.org/education/equity-vs-equality-in-education 

[4] Giardina (2019). What does an inclusive classroom look like? https://inclusiveschools.org/what-does-an-inclusive-classroom-look-like/ 

[5] https://sdg4education2030.org/the-goal 

[6] UNESCO (2020). Inclusion and education: ALL MEANS ALL. Global Education Monitoring Report. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/in/documentViewer.xhtml?v=2.1.196&id=p::usmarcdef_0000373718&file=/in/rest/annotationSVC/DownloadWatermarkedAttachment/attach_import_d3682741-8fe5-4012-98c6-66d2bb13b7f0%3F_%3D373718eng.pdf&locale=en&multi=true&ark=/ark:/48223/pf0000373718/PDF/373718eng.pdf#p29 

[7] Shulla, K. (2021). The COVID-19 pandemic and the achievement of the SDGs. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s43621-021-00026-x 

[8] Adebayo and Chinhanu (2020).  Ubuntu in Education: Towards equitable teaching and learning for all in the era of SDG 4. NORRAG. https://www.norrag.org/ubuntu-in-education-towards-equitable-teaching-and-learning-for-all-in-the-era-of-sdg-4-by-chiedza-a-chinhanu-and-seun-b-adebayo/ 

[9] Moss and Bradley (2021). Education in a Post-COVID World: Creating more Resilient Education Systems. https://blog.eera-ecer.de/resilient-education/ 

[10] Adebayo S.B. (2019). Emerging perspectives of teacher agency in a post-conflict setting: The case of Liberia. Teaching and Teacher Education. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0742051X18300143?via%3Dihub 

[11]Tao, S. (2013). Why are teachers absent? Utilising the Capability Approach and Critical Realism to explain teacher performance in Tanzania. International Journal of Educational Development, 33 (1): 2-14 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257243592_Why_are_teachers_absent_Utilising_the_Capability_Approach_and_Critical_Realism_to_explain_teacher_performance_in_Tanzania 

[12]Beauchamp, G., Hulme, M., Clarke, L., Hamilton, L., & Harvey, J. A. (2021). ‘People miss people’: A study of school leadership and management in the four nations of the United Kingdom in the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Educational Management Administration & Leadership49(3), 375-392. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1741143220987841 

“Building back better” with Inclusive Learning Assessments

“Building back better” with Inclusive Learning Assessments

School closures during the COVID-19 pandemic have threatened inclusion and exasperated the existing inequalities in education. Across the globe, children with disabilities are more likely to suffer from learning losses (OECD, 2020).

During this crisis, in Europe it was reported that limited guidance from international organisations was available on inclusion, measures taken immediately were sometimes inadequate, digital education challenged inclusion, and limited support could be provided to vulnerable children and their families.

Internationally, the term, building back better is being increasingly used in the global call for making recoveries in the economy and society in the post-COVID world. Our research shows, that in this context, education systems need to consider the role of reliable and rigorous learning assessment data in the education of children with disabilities. Education stakeholders will have a true picture of learning only when children with disabilities are included in all forms of learning assessment. On the ground, data will help teachers to target teaching appropriately so that every child progresses in their learning.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) countries, many of which are in Europe, have started including children with disabilities in the assessment programme. Despite an increase in the participation of children with special needs in PISA over the administration cycles, they still represent below 3% of the total number of participants (LeRoy et al. 2019).

Equitable Learning Assessment in the Asia-Pacific Region

Let us move beyond Europe and look at the Asia-Pacific Region, where countries have diverse policies, barriers, preparedness, and progress when it comes to inclusive education and inclusive learning assessments in particular. In the Asia-Pacific region, there has been a sluggish transition to inclusive education (Wu-Tien, Ashman, & Yung-Wook, 2008; Forlin, 2010). Most countries have a dual system of schooling where children with moderate disabilities study in general schools and those with severe difficulties in special schools.      

Our review Equitable Learning Assessments for Students with Disabilities found that learning assessment practices vary across countries in the Asia-Pacific. Countries with a history of participating in national and international assessments try to make their assessments inclusive through accommodations. The review reported the use of testing accommodations in Australia, Hong Kong (SAR China), India, the Philippines, and Singapore in the Asia-Pacific region. However, children with severe disabilities or children who cannot be accommodated are left out. Some countries assess students with disabilities through formative methods (Chakraborty et al. 2019). It has to be kept in mind that inclusive learning assessments are an outcome of developments in inclusive education and advances in learning assessment.

Ideally, a single assessment should measure the learning of all students without the need for accommodations (Douglas et al., 2016). But in most education systems, accommodations are used to make assessments accessible to children with disabilities. However, the use of accommodations needs to be normalised in every level of testing – classroom, national, and international assessments (Chakraborty et al., 2019).

National-level policies on inclusive education and assessment practices determine to what extent children with disabilities are included in assessments. For example, in Hong Kong (SAR China), the SAME (Systematic Approach matching Mainstream Education) system provides access to children with disabilities to the central curriculum (Forlin, 2010). Similarly, specific country level mandates on assessment will support the inclusion of children with disabilities in classroom, national, or international assessments.

Across the world, teachers continue to face challenges in assessing students with disabilities (Hussu & Strle, 2010; Brookhart & Lazarus, 2017). In the Asia- Pacific countries, not many teaching staff have been trained in inclusive education (Sin, Tsang, Poon, & Lai, 2010). This is even true for Singapore, which has a reputation for high scores in international assessments. The Singaporean education system has short and less rigorous training for special educators (Walker & Musti-Rao, 2016).

Teachers as Agents of Change

Our review suggests that teachers are powerful change agents in making inclusive assessment a reality, especially in middle- and low-income economies. To enable this change, development partners should prioritise the professional development of teachers in the complex topics of inclusive education and learning assessments.

This training should include all teachers from pre-service (student teachers), in-service (part-time/full-time school teachers), to special educators. Along with this, professional development courses should be designed to eliminate stigma and prejudices about disabilities. Moreover, school leaders should be trained regularly as they are responsible for setting the culture for assessment and inclusion in schools (Chakraborty et al., 2019).

Investments in research and projects on inclusive education, professional learning, and learning assessments are critical for making advancements in the field of inclusive learning assessments. As education systems are being reshaped to close learning gaps in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, strong partnerships between development partners, governments, and non-government organisations can contribute immensely to this area of inclusive assessment.

Anannya Chakraborty,

Anannya Chakraborty,

Senior Communications Officer, ACER India

Anannya Chakraborty started working in the international development sector after completing her Post Graduate degree in Social Development from the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. In the last eight years, she has worked on various challenging social sector projects in the areas of research, knowledge management, and communications.
 
As a Senior Corporate Communications Officer at the Australian Council for Educational Research (India), Anannya works in global and Indian communications assignments along with commissioned research projects.
 
Before joining ACER, she has also worked on ethnographic qualitative research and social and behaviour change communication projects for international development.
 
Anannya has presented at international conferences and forums organised by the European Educational Research Association and UNESCO Bangkok.
Amit Kaushik

Amit Kaushik

CEO, ACER India

Amit Kaushik has been CEO of ACER India and a member of the Board of the Australian Council for Educational Research (India) since 2017. He specialises in consulting, policy planning, programme design, implementation, project management, monitoring and evaluation. His research interests include school management, quality improvement in education, skill development, non-formal education, inclusive education, and girls’​ education. From 2001-2006, Amit was Director, Elementary Education, in the Ministry of HRD, Government of India, where he was associated with the development and implementation of various policies related to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, as well as India’s international commitments on Education For All (EFA). Among other things, he worked closely on the 2005 draft of the Right to Education Bill, based on which The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act was passed in 2009. He has been a consultant to UNESCO Paris, Nigeria, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as to UNICEF Iraq and Yemen, working with them from time to time on assignments related to literacy, planning for Education for All, non-formal education, accelerated learning and the Global Partnership for Education.

ACER India is an independent, not-for-profit research organisation providing world class research, educational products and services to India and the South Asia region.

Follow ACER India on social media:

References and Further Reading

‘Building back better’ may seem like a noble idea. But caution is needed https://theconversation.com/building-back-better-may-seem-like-a-noble-idea-but-caution-is-needed-154587

Building back better – a sustainable and resilient recovery after COVID-19 https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/building-back-better-a-sustainable-resilient-recovery-after-covid-19-52b869f5/

Building Back Better – achieving resilience through stronger, faster, and more inclusive post-disaster reconstruction https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/420321528985115831/pdf/127215-REVISED-BuildingBackBetter-Web-July18Update.pdf

The Impact of COVID-19 on Inclusive Education at the European Level  https://www.european-agency.org/sites/default/files/COVID-19-Impact-Literature-Review.pdf

Students with special educational needs within PISA, (LeRoy et al. 2019) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0969594X.2017.1421523

 

Equitable learning assessments for students with disabilities https://research.acer.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1037&context=ar_misc

Developing and implementing quality inclusive education in Hong Kong: implications for teacher education (Forlin, 2010) https://nasenjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1471-3802.2010.01162.x

Including Pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disability in National Assessment: Comparison of Three Country Case Studies through an Inclusive Assessment Framework (Douglas et al., 2016) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1034912X.2015.1111306

The assessment of children with special needs (Hussu & Strle, 2010) https://cyberleninka.org/article/n/1191085

Formative assessments for children with disabilities (Brookhart & Lazarus, 2017) https://ccsso.org/sites/default/files/2017-12/Formative_Assessment_for_Students_with_Disabilities.pdf

Upskilling all mainstream teachers – what is viable? (Sin, Tsang, & Poon, 2010) https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9780203850879-37/upskilling-mainstream-teachers-viable-kuen-fung-sin-kok-wai-tsang-chung-yee-poon

Inclusion in High-Achieving Singapore: Challenges of Building an Inclusive Society in Policy and Practice (Walker & Musti-Rao, 2016) https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1114835.pdf

 

 

This thematic review Equitable Learning Assessments for Students with Disabilities has been funded by the Australian Council for Educational Research (India). The authors are grateful to Network on Education Quality Monitoring in the Asia-Pacific (NEQMAP), UNESCO Bangkok for publishing the review.  

Full report: Chakraborty, A., Kaushik, A., & UNESCO Office Bangkok and Regional Bureau for Education in Asia and the Pacific. (2019). Equitable learning assessments for students with disabilities(NEQMAP thematic review).UNESCO Office Bangkok.https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000372301?posInSet=2%26queryId=e5a90c3e-c567-4f6a-9eeb-d2f712203481

Read about ACER’s ongoing review of professional development programmes on inclusive teaching and learning: https://www.acer.org/au/discover/article/reviewing-professional-development-programs-on-inclusive-teaching-and-learning

Internationalising research on teaching assistants: A call for expressions of interest in creating a research network

Internationalising research on teaching assistants: A call for expressions of interest in creating a research network

Across the globe, the drive towards the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) in mainstream schools has become contingent on the creation and utilisation of a paraprofessional workforce, commonly known as teaching assistants or teacher aides (TAs).  

Australia, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, the US, and the UK have all experienced large increases in this section of their education workforce over the last quarter-century. It is claimed that in many territories, policies of inclusion and provision for pupils with SEN rely heavily on this ‘non-teaching’ workforce (Masdeu Navarro, 2015). And recent evidence from the UK shows how vital TAs have been to keeping schools open and ensuring children can learn during the COVID pandemic (Moss et al, 2021). 

The growing prevalence and prominence of TAs in schools has attracted attention from researchers, who are keen to identify effective approaches to TA deployment and preparation, describe and measure their impact in various forms, and to characterise their experiences of work. Peer-reviewed papers on TAs started to noticeably pepper the academic literature in the mid-1990s, appearing mainly in US journals. Yet, in the subsequent decades, there have been no collections of international writing on TAs.

Until now.

A new special issue of the European Journal of Special Needs Education, which I have guest-edited with Anke de Boer (University of Groningen), draws together research and perspectives on the role, deployment, and impact of TAs from international contexts. It intends to serve as an indicative summary of work and thinking in the field to date and as a point of departure for future research and development. All articles in the special issue are free to access online from 14 May until the end of June. 

The call for papers generated a truly international response. We received nearly 50 abstracts from researchers in 17 countries across five continents. The selected papers provide insights into the liminal space between educator, caregiver, behaviour manager, and facilitator of learning and of peer relations, which characterises the TA role.

The papers consider the features of team-working and cooperation between TAs and teachers and explore the TA’s role as a facilitator of peer interactions, personal care, and instructional support for pupils with SEN. Two papers focus on the pupils’ perspective of TA support and the implications for social inclusion and the development of independence. One of the foremost researchers on TAs, Michael Giangreco from the University of Vermont (USA), reflects on more than 40 years of experience in the field in a specially-commissioned article.

Our own contribution (Webster & de Boer, 2021) draws attention to a situation that came quickly to light in the process of curating the special issue. While the call for papers shows the extent of the activity and global reach of research on TAs, it also revealed how the field lacks any coordinated network or forum for researchers to convene, share and debate ideas, and disseminate their work.

Many national educational research associations have a special interest group for those researching special and inclusive education. While these tend to provide an intellectual home for researchers studying TAs, research on/involving TAs transcends this discipline and straddles areas such as economics, feminism, and labour relations. Therefore, the launch of the special issue presents a timely opportunity to call for the creation of a network specifically designed to support research on TAs.

It could be, however, that TAs is too narrow a focus for a viable special interest group and that our field would be better served by widening and reframing our focus onto something we might nascently term ‘paraprofessional studies’.

The increase of TAs in education can be seen in the broader context of the rise in paraprofessionals across a range of public services. These are people who work alongside and support those working in professional roles in fields such as medicine, health, social work, law, and the police. Evidence from the UK and the US shows how the introduction of paraprofessionals has led to a redrawing of the boundaries between the roles of established professionals and others who work in their respective fields (Kessler, Bach & Heron, 2005; Thornley, 1997; Wallace, 2003). Indeed, papers in the special issue (for example, Östlund et al., 2021; Zhao et al., 2021) suggest that there are contexts in which TAs may have multiple paraprofessional identifies, with the roles of individual TAs combining or bridging between functions of education and care.

Our international research network would be a lively, democratic space in which researchers from across education and the social sciences could convene around the topic of paraprofessionals. Work on TAs would constitute a productive site for activity in its own right. Still, there would also be potential for rich, innovative ideas to bloom from exciting exchanges and interactions with researchers across the world investigating the role and lives of paraprofessionals in other areas (e.g., healthcare assistants). We would want our network to draw in policymakers and practitioners as well, thereby creating a dynamic, multidisciplinary interface between the worlds of research, policy, and practice.

The pandemic has reshaped ideas about connectedness. It is easier than ever (at least technically) for researchers to come together with multiple stakeholders to share experiences, discuss, debate, and develop ideas and proposals. We see potential for online gatherings and discussion, leading in years to come to real-world symposia and even an international conference – all with a major focus on TAs and TA research.

Such an endeavour, we believe, would greatly expand, empower and raise the esteem of the field of scholarship on TAs. The publication of the special issue presents an unmissable opportunity to reach out to researchers across a range of disciplines, studying any and all aspects relating to the life and work of TAs, who are interested in creating an international network for TA research.

Our paper invites readers to make contact in order to express support for, and thoughts on, establishing such a network. It is an invitation that I am happy to extend to readers of this blog. Please email rob.webster@ucl.ac.uk.

 

Ashmeet Baweja

Ashmeet Baweja

PhD Candidate (Peace Education) , TERI School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi, India

Ashmeet Baweja is a PhD candidate at TERI School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi, India working on mainstreaming peace education in K-12 schools. Her ethnographic research explores institutionalisation of peace education at an elite school in India. An academic at heart, her purpose is to create peaceful and SEL oriented environments as a way to create sustainable individuals and communities. Her research interests include peace education, elite schooling , sociology of education and qualitative research methods.

Peace Educator I Education Sociologist I PhD Candidate I Mountains are home I Period lifestyle enthusiast

Find out more about Ashmeet's professional journey at https://www.linkedin.com/in/ashmeet-baweja-a60435112

Dr Rob Webster

Dr Rob Webster

Associate Professor at UCL Institute of Education, UK

Dr Rob Webster is an Associate Professor at UCL Institute of Education, UK. He was part of the research team that conducted the world’s largest study of teaching assistants: the ground-breaking Deployment and Impact of Support Staff project. Rob writes extensively on the role of teaching assistants, and he also created the award-winning Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants programme for schools (maximisingtas.co.uk). Prior to research, Rob worked as a teaching assistant in mainstream and special schools.

Website: www.rob-webster.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobWebster_
http://orcid.org/0000-0003-1416-4439

References and Further Reading

Kessler, I., Bach, S. & Heron, P. (2005) Assistant roles and changing job boundaries in the public services. Final report. London: ESRC.

Masdeu Navarro, F. (2015). Learning support staff: A literature review. OECD Education Working paper no.125. https://doi.org/10.1787/5jrnzm39w45l-en.

Moss, G., Webster, R., Harmey, S., and Bradbury, A. (2021) Unsung Heroes: The role of teaching assistants and classroom assistants in keeping schools functioning during lockdown. London: UCL Institute of Education http://maximisingtas.co.uk/assets/unsung-heroesfinal.pdf 

Östlund, D., Barow, T., Dahlberg, K. & Johansson, A. (2021) In between special needs teachers and students: Paraprofessionals work in self-contained classrooms for students with intellectual disabilities in Sweden. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 36(2). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08856257.2021.1901370

Thornley, C. (1997) The invisible workers: An investigation into the pay and employment of health care assistants in the NHS. London: Unison.

Wallace, T. (2003) Paraprofessionals. Minnesota, USA: Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education.

Webster, R. & de Boer, A. (2021) ‘Where next for research on teaching assistants: The case for an international response’. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 36(2).

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08856257.2021.1901368

Zhao, Y., Rose, R. & Shevlin, M. (2021) Paraprofessional support in Irish schools: From Special Needs Assistants to Inclusion Support Assistants. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 36(2). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08856257.2021.1901371  

What can international data tell us about education paraprofessionals? Almost nothing

What can international data tell us about education paraprofessionals? Almost nothing

In many schools and classrooms across the globe, the drive towards the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) in mainstream schools has become contingent on the creation and utilisation of a relatively new paraprofessional workforce, known variously as teaching assistants or teacher aides (TAs). It is claimed that in many countries, policies of mainstreaming pupils with SEN rely heavily on this ‘non-teaching’ workforce (Masdeu Navarro, 2015).

The intertwining of inclusion and TAs leads to the view that TAs have become ‘the mortar in the brickwork … hold[ing] schools together in numerous and sometimes unnoticed ways’ (Webster et al., 2021, p2). Its relative intuitiveness – more individualised support for pupils that struggle most – is arguably why it is the model of choice for education systems and schools striving for inclusion and why it has replicated itself more successfully than just about any other model. 

Despite all this, there are virtually no macro-level data on the characteristics, role, and contribution of TAs and their relationship to and impact on inclusion. The most influential international study on schools and classrooms, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), is lauded by policymakers and researchers of advanced nations for the richness of its data and the detailed insights it provides. It, however, has vanishing little say about TAs.

The third and most recent wave of TALIS from 2018 – which involved over 275,000 respondents from 31 countries (OECD, 2021a) – stated that ‘teacher aides [and] pedagogical support staff … were not considered to be teachers and, thus, not part of the TALIS international target population’ (OECD, 2021b). Leaving aside whether there is, or there ought to be, an equivalence between TAs and teachers, the decision to exclude TAs from TALIS matters. Not just, I would argue, in and of itself, but because other high-level analyses of education rely on the data it collects, such as the authoritative Global Education Monitoring (GEM) annual report (which is hosted and published by UNESCO).

The focus of the 2020 GEM report was inclusion, yet it was unable to report much at all about TAs because ‘data on teaching assistants is limited, even in high-income countries’ (UNESCO, 2020, p300). The report concluded that ‘comparable international data on inclusion-related use of support personnel are not generally available’ (UNESCO, 2020, p306).

Elsewhere, a rare international survey, commissioned by Education International (the global union federation of teacher trade unions), of the characteristics, employment and working conditions of just over 3,000 ‘education support personnel’ [ESP] – a group among which TAs are prominent – concluded: ‘there are significant gaps in the knowledge and understanding of ESP: who they are, what they do, and what they need to do their jobs effectively’ (Butler, 2019, p1). 

If recent trends are anything to go by, and as the near-global drive towards inclusion continues, large amounts of public money will be spent on employing more and more TAs. In England, for example, school census data show that 28% of the school workforce are employed as TAs (and 35% of the primary schools’ workforce)1. However, there are no public data on what this costs or to what extent it represents value for taxpayers’ money. Such questions can be both reductive and a rather blunt way of quantifying TAs’ highly nuanced contributions to education. Nonetheless, these are the kinds of questions that motivate policymakers and imply a prima facia case for national governments to show as much interest in the working lives, practices, and perspectives of TAs as they do in those of teachers.

For this reason, in a paper for an upcoming special issue of the European Journal of Special Needs Education2, guest editors Anke de Boer (University of Groningen) and I, call for the OECD to extend TALIS in ways that reflect, and are proportionate to, the global trend towards employing and deploying TAs in educational settings (Webster & de Boer, 2021). 

Many of the themes selected for inclusion in the 2018 TALIS survey are relatable to the lives of TAs:

    • instructional practices
    • professional practices
    • initial preparation for the role
    • school climate
    • job satisfaction
    • human resource issues
    • stakeholder relations
    • career opportunities
    • professional responsibility and autonomy.


At the more basic but nonetheless essential, descriptive level, a survey of TAs would be able to track demographic trends relating to equality, diversity, and representation. Crucial, you would think, for a role synonymous with inclusion.

UNESCO Global Education Monitoring reports ‘serve as a foundation for evidence-based advocacy to promote progress towards SDG 4’ (the fourth Sustainable Development Goal on education) (OECD, 2021c). The 2020 report on inclusion points to how a broader ‘shortage of data on teachers’ from countries that are not included in TALIS represents one of three ‘data gaps remain[ing] in key areas of the SDG 4 monitoring framework’ (UNESCO, 2020, p198). The macrodata gap relating to TAs can be seen as part of the same issue. Providing and sharing the robust evidence needed to underpin policymaking and practice, and to hold world leaders to account, are essential if we are to achieve SDG 4. Progress will be all the slower, if not unworkable, without a coordinated and consolidated data collection effort that incorporates and reflects the role and contribution of TAs.

In our paper, we argue that the potentially transformative ideas for improving policy and practice in relation to TAs exist in the skillful accumulation, harmonisation, and utilisation of data at the macro, meso, and micro levels. Expanding an existing data collection effort that is funded by, and maps education labour force trends in, the world’s most advanced economies seems to us a good place to start.

The next cycle of TALIS, due in 2024, is perhaps the first opportunity to pilot a survey for TAs in a select number of territories where they are a well-established part of the school workforce.

Survey items could be limited to questions drawn from several of the most relatable themes from the teacher survey (see above), and trialled in countries such as the US, the UK, Norway, and Finland; countries that are not only above the OECD average in terms of TA-pupil ratio (7.3 TAs per 1,000 pupils) (Masdeu Navarro, 2015), but also have large enough numbers of TAs from which a meaningful sample can be drawn. We might extend our pilot to Brazil, Chile, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden, which interrogation of the most recent OECD data from 2018 suggests also have sufficiently sizable and sampleable TA populations across both primary and secondary education (OECD, 2021d).

A successful pilot could lead to approaches which, within a couple of TALIS cycles, are capable of producing the kind of data on TAs that have impressively – and in relatively short order – transformed and enhanced our understanding of teachers and teaching.

Dr Rob Webster

Dr Rob Webster

Associate Professor at UCL Institute of Education, UK

Dr Rob Webster is an Associate Professor at UCL Institute of Education, UK. He was part of the research team that conducted the world’s largest study of teaching assistants: the ground-breaking Deployment and Impact of Support Staff project. Rob writes extensively on the role of teaching assistants, and he also created the award-winning Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants programme for schools (maximisingtas.co.uk). Prior to research, Rob worked as a teaching assistant in mainstream and special schools.

Website: www.rob-webster.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobWebster_
http://orcid.org/0000-0003-1416-4439

Further Reading

Notes

  1. Department for Education (2021) School Workforce in England: November 2019. Available at: https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/school-workforce-in-england (accessed 09.03.21).
  2. A special issue of the European Journal of Special Needs Education entitled ‘Teaching assistants: Their role in the inclusion, education and achievement of pupils with special educational needs’ will be published in April 2021. It draws together research and perspectives on the role, deployment and impact of TAs from six European countries.

References

Butler, P. (2019) Understanding the invisible workforce. Education support personnel’s roles, needs and the challenges they face. Brussels: Education International. Available online: https://issuu.com/educationinternational/docs/research_esp_final_report. Accessed: 04.02.21.

Masdeu Navarro, F. (2015). Learning support staff: A literature review. OECD Education Working paper no.125. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1787/5jrnzm39w45l-en. Accessed: 11.02.21.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2021a) TALIS FAQ. Available online: https://www.oecd.org/education/talis/talisfaq/. Accessed: 04.02.21.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2021b) Annex A. Technical notes on sampling procedures, response rates and adjudication for TALIS 2018. Available online: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/1d0bc92a-en/1/3/1/index.html?itemId=/content/publication/1d0bc92a-en&_csp_=1418ec5a16ddb9919c5bc207486a271c&itemIGO=oecd&itemContentType=book. Accessed: 04.02.21.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2021c) The Global Education Monitoring Report, in brief. Available online: https://en.unesco.org/gem-report/about. Accessed: 04.02.21.

 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2020) Global Education Monitoring Report 2020: Inclusion and education: All means all. Paris: UNESCO. Available online: https://en.unesco.org/gem-report/report/2020/inclusion. Accessed: 04.02.21.

 Webster, R. Bosanquet, P., Franklin, S. & Parker, M. (2021) Maximising the impact of teaching assistants in primary schools: Guidance for school leaders. Oxon: Routledge http://maximisingtas.co.uk/our-books.php

 Webster, R. & de Boer, A. (2021) ‘Where next for research on teaching assistants: The case for an international response’. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 36(2). https://doi.org/10.1080/08856257.2021.1901368