10 tips to maximise learning support

This is the first of what I hope will be many guest posts on my blog. It is written by my good friend and experienced Learning Support Assistant (LSA), Paul Warren.


Rarely do teachers have the opportunity to explore how to work effectively with LSAs (or equivalents) in their classrooms. Both ITE and ongoing staff development sessions often fail to emphasise the importance of, and methods to enhance, the working relationship between teacher and LSA, resulting in ineffective utilisation of this key role (not in all cases, but many).  In this post, Paul highlights the pivotal role that LSAs play and he provides teachers with 10 great tips to maximise their use:

Image source: http://www.civilserviceworld.com/frontline-learning-support-assistant
‘At some point during their career, many FE lecturers will have an opportunity to work alongside a Learning Support Assistant (LSA). Usually, but not exclusively, LSAs are tasked with providing 1:1 or small group support to students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities by offering learning strategies which help them to access the curriculum. Above all, however, the ultimate aim of most LSAs is to promote independent and autonomous working for the students that they support.


The most effective LSAs are those which seek to work closely with the lecturer and the student to gradually reduce the need for support with a view to ultimately removing it altogether. This can create a range of possible issues – not least of which being that the LSA should expect to make themselves redundant – but the overall impetus is on helping the learner to maximise their potential to work independently.


Of course, some learners will require support for the entirety of their time at college, but there is no harm in working with the expectation that all students will be able to work more independently before their course of study ends.


Often lecturers may not have had any in-depth instruction or training regarding how best to work with LSAs. Finding information isn’t always easy. FE-specific literature or research relating to working with LSAs is scarce, but there are some schools-based studies (see the excellent Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) Project) or smaller scale FE research (see LSIS/Natspec’s highly valuable Enhancement of Learning Support) which may prove helpful. Excellence Gateway have also produced a really useful guide which can be used to gauge the impact of support staff via their Working With LSAs Audit Tool. In addition, a search on the Education and Training Foundation’s website will yield a range of resources for working with students with SEND who need support. Other additional useful and relevant sources include The 2010 Equality Act, the 2014 Children and Families Act – including Education, Health and Care Plans and The FELTAG report which, in part, highlighted the importance of providing assistive technology for FE students who need it. More current FE-specific research and general awareness is needed, however, which promotes the benefits and value of using LSAs to promote independent and autonomous working in Further Education.


In the meantime, the following suggestions may be useful to lecturers to help kick-start a collaboration with LSAs with a view to reducing support and increasing learner independence:

  1. Work with LSAs to review current records of student needs – particularly pinpointing any known learning strategies which encourage the learner to work independently.
  2. Cultivate high expectations of the learner by immediately working with LSAs to try to identify what independence from support might ultimately look like. Use what you find in conjunction with your identification of student needs as a guide for each session and review regularly.
  3. Agree an absolute maximum level of support that LSAs can provide before an issue or difficulty must be referred directly to the class tutor. Be clear with LSAs (and the learner) that the LSA should never do the work for the student.
  4. Identify an early target for the learner to interact directly with the lecturer at least once during every session. Increase over time in order to reduce reliance on LSAs and gradually prepare the student for the time when the support is withdrawn.
  5. Produce a measurable method of identifying the impact of support. This could be a chart or record of work that records instances in which the student does a task independently or requires minimal LSA input. If possible, actively involve the student in evaluating their own need for help and use the data to plan future support.
  6. Encourage, praise and reward students when they work independently and use successes to promote future independent learning
  7. Work with the LSA and the student to produce a portfolio of independent working strategies which the learner can take with them to further study or employment.
  8. Liaise with teacher trainers, quality managers and senior leaders to share successes of promoting learner independence and reducing LSA support.
  9. Work with your Learning Support team to build a database of what works for learners in your subject and use it to inform future individual student support needs.
  10. Share ideas and successes via social media platform such as Blogs, Twitter or YouTube (remembering to respect individual student confidentiality and identity) and get in touch with other colleges to find out how they reduce support and promote learner independence.’


So there we have it. Why not consider how you can develop each of the above points. Thanks go to Paul Warren @paulw_learn for this excellent post.


7 thoughts on “10 tips to maximise learning support

  1. Really sorry but I am not sure these are as good as you might think they are. I’m going to put my critical cap on here so bear with me.

    1/ this a good idea on the surface but have you considered the opportunity cost to both tutor and support. There is also no reason to assume the support worker has experience/expertise in discussing student needs effectively. This is perfectly teachable but ratchet that opportunity cost up again. (I used to lose hours as a new tutor explaining my choices to support). I am assuming that EHCP meeting etc have already done this work.
    2/ I like the idea of modelling/discussing the expected learner endpoint. It is rather difficult though. The biggest criticism here is that this point doesn’t really explain how to do it efficiently. (Though this is still one of my favorite ideas). I suspect the immediacy is less relevant then the long term consistency of simple approaches.
    3/ Telling support not to over-help doesn’t usually work as well as you would expect. Clear expectations at the beginning don’t really work either on there own. The real progress comes through long-term contact and tutor-support modelling. This is usually easier with new staff as they have less preconceived notions on what to do.(My belief/assumption no evidence to support). Alternatively you can get a socially sophisticated teacher trained support. (Then you get to feel like you have telepathic superpowers).
    4/ Good idea providing you can keep the opportunity cost down. You do take into account all that time spent drafting, reinforcing and following up on formal targets?
    You can kill a good few hours that could have been spent practicing.
    5/Producing a reliable and valid method of measuring progress is what I assume you meant. Unfortunately the reliable and valid part is hard. Got to say this seems like a great opportunity for educational pseudo-measurement and a great exemplar of confirmation bias. Also vague data rarely create effective interventions.
    6/ SOLD. Though are we are carefully phrasing our feedback. (Top of my head was it roughly a 1/3 of feedback studies showed negative impact in some meta-analysis though overall there was a strong positive effect).
    7/ This is a nice idea but seems like it could become an end into itself. Most strategies for increased independence are likely to be universal across all supported students. Using a shared approach with only minor variations were needed makes training and consistency of approach much easier. The same strategies can also be reinforced for all learners.
    8/ Seems nice. But wont we just get fixated on the odd example rather than the nitty gritty of gradual improvement across the board. Providing it is kept simple and efficient I’m not really going to argue here. It’s hardly going to revolutionise support though. Now if you could break down a specific case and use it as a detailed exemplar for others that would be really useful, this is not the same as sharing success.
    9/ Good idea. Might work better as a whole school process, also open to abuse. Left to our own devices some really bad ideas propagate. Until the DISS study no one really appreciated the potentially negative impact of support.
    10/ As above. Just more so. Most people can’t even accept the result of the DISS study. They won’t read it (And there is a one page summary) and conflate it with some extreme negative viewpoints towards additional needs. This is the same story as in Synthetic Phonics and Dyslexia assessment. Remember the prevalence of pseudoscience in education is rather high. Brian Gym/learning styles anyone?(Took a risk with learning styles there).

    Hope I haven’t pushed back to hard. My viewpoints aren’t all negative around this, its just that if we put our desire to fix the problem ahead of our objective ability to assess it we will create a flawed solution.(Blatchford is guilty of this in the DISS study though to his credit he has followed up on some of his hypothesis in later research).
    Incidentally have you read any of Blatchfords follow up studies?

    1. Thank you for your comments, Michael. Critical is good, as it provides us all with the opportunity to pick apart our beliefs and consider alternative positions. I didn’t author this post, but I am sure that the author (Paul Warren) would love the opportunity to respond to your points.

    2. Hi Michael

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read the post and for your valuable feedback. None of your comments appeared negative in any way and were gladly received in the constructively critical manner in which I’m sure you offered them.

      Just to give some context, my points in the post represent a personal perspective based on working as an LSA supporting students in a variety of curriculum settings from Foundation Learning through to Engineering, Business and Computing, Health and Social Care, GCSE E&M, Sport and Public Services through to BA, MA and Post Comp PGCE over a 13 year period in an FE colleges up until October 2016.

      I found that as time went on, it became ever more essential to be as precise as possible to go about gathering as much background info about the learner’s experience at school (where applicable) to help gauge their needs as they studied for a future career or further study. This information often gave me the background to discuss the student’s need with the class teacher – many of whom had not had the time to fully read and absorb the notes complied by the transition teams who had gone out and met the learners in their final year of school.

      The transition records provided invaluable insight into how the students preferred to learn with input gleaned from students themselves, school teachers, SENCOs, parents and other agencies. These notes offered the opportunity to think in advance about things such as assistive or learning technologies and suggest possible strategies to teachers – many of whom were not familiar with options available in-house or platforms such as android, iOS or Windows. We were also able to map use of certain technologies to the student’s career or further study destination to encourage greater independence beyond college or university. In addition to technology, strategies also included techniques for areas such as behaviour management, literacy and numeracy or employability. As an LSA, I was able to let lecturers know how students progressed in non-vocational subjects such as Functional Skills, GCSE English and maths resits or let those lecturers know how students were doing in vocational subjects. Underpinning all of this was close and ongoing dialogue between lecturer and LSA.

      Regarding the formal targets, line management required that every student had at least one Learning Support target and one EHCP target (where applicable) as these were conditions of funding by the local authority – targets which were rigoursly reviewed in regular Borough audits. Failing to set targets resulted in disciplinary/performance capability by managers. Outcomes from each and every session needed to be recorded on a student progress form which evaluated support strategies used, effectiveness of strategies, level of learner independence, behaviour levels, student mood, session content and many other things. Students were also required (whenever possible) how support had help them achieve session aims and objectives, These records were stored in the learner file and taken to class by any LSA who supported the learner. LSA were required to regularly justify their input/approach to LSA Team Leaders – who monitored the quality of support on a regular basis.

      You mentioned the DISS project – I’ve spoken in depth with Rob Webster and we both agree that there are differences and similarities with the way LSAs work in the FE sector – something you don’t seem to acknowledge in your comments. It would be interesting to hear if you are of the same opinion and maybe get your perspective on the effective deployment of support in FE, where curriculum content, learning environment, lecturer style, student orientation to learning LSA approach/interaction complexity of learning need and funding of support can vary greatly from working with much younger pupils in schools.

      I’m sorry I can’t address each of your points in-depth individually here as it would take a long time to respond to each, but I’d be more than willing to chat on the phone if that would be helpful.

      Once again, many thanks for taking the time to give your valuable feedback.

  2. My own experience began as a support worker from an agency in 2003 then permanently a year later before moving into teaching in a Foundation department in FE.

    My college has similar structures to yours and our additional learning support is largely structured to meet funding requirements with evidence linked to justify this. Our ALS team has no plans to change this approach. These plans are not designed to prioritise teaching and learning and no acknowledgement of the DISS study is made. I consider this institutional myopia.

    Back to my previous post. My critique was in general that your ideas are conceptual plasters trying to work around your inherited structures. Believe it or not some schools (I know schools) have used radically different approaches including spending ALS funding on extra teachers instead of support in one case. (I am not advocating this, it is a merely an example that radically different approaches are possible-annoyingly can’t find this article again).

    This point is important because I believe if we explore fundamentally different approaches to ALS we will find more effective solutions. I realise that it is my job to give you some examples to back this up and I intend to offer an alternative set of guidance next week focused on the experience of myself and colleagues. (We have observations to prepare for this week). It will be illuminating to contrast.

    If I may briefly discuss your point about differences in FE to schools. This is a familiar argument to me (I acknowledge DISS was school based) but I am going to argue that it is for the most part a red herring.
    (As a side note I came to this conclusion only after reading Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants carefully. I had not appreciated how their conclusion had been drawn from very specific differences in behavior between teachers and support.)

    My attempt at summarising Blatchfords findings are

    • Support was valued by teachers for helping reduce their workload. Mainly in regards to non-contact tasks. My college does not use TAs in this way. I suspect your employer is the same. If other colleges do use support like this it would affect my viewpoint.

    • Observations of TA interactions revealed a striking difference between teacher-student interaction and TA-student interaction. They found a negative relationship between the amount of TA support received and the progress made by pupils in mainstream primary and secondary schools.

    It is important to note that direct classroom support of students is the main role of TAs at my college along with break/lunch supervision. I argue that this makes us more rather than less vulnerable to this effect. The DISS study did not tell me what I expected to hear but convinced me by eerily describing both the behavior of many of the TAs that I worked with as well as my own priorities when I worked as support. Again, if other college use support differently it would affect my viewpoint.

    Blatchfords has lots of ideas (untested in DISS though followed up elsewhere) of what to do about this. Using TAs trained to deliver very specific additional coaching outside of class is one. This is the response to intervention idea. (Likely used to focus on core gateway skills, reading, money, time etc). His goal is to research more effective approaches then the models we currently use. I believe we should all support this goal and encourage colleagues and senior management to accept that our current practices are suboptimal.

    I’m going to stop here and let you respond. Please pay attention to my focus on TA-student interaction in the classroom. While there may be many differences between FE and School’s the central message that support workers often end up being an alternative form of teaching rather than additional still stands in FE.

    Please to not confuse this criticism with individual attacks on staff.
    This has been done before and I found it rather upsetting, as I had tried hard to describe a general failure in deployment and training.

    I am interested in Rob Webster’s opinion as I have looked up one of his articles for the Guardian
    which makes a lot of sense to me. I look forward to his analysis on how valid my simplification of the FE/School difference is.

    Finally, thanks Dan for letting me resubmit. I am much happier with this version.

  3. Hi Michael

    Sorry for the delay in replying, last week was a particularly busy week!

    I take your point about my ideas being conceptual plasters working around inherited structures – to a point this is true, but in such a junior role in a sector that does not widely value or promote the work of LSAs, you have to work with what you’ve got in order to attempt to move things forward. Very few FE LSAs are publicly engaging with the wider debate on their own identity and I think it’s important that we step forward and speak about what works and doesn’t work from our own point of view. Hopefully more colleagues will step forward and do the same and encourage FE to do their own studies. I’ve already connected with many FE authors and academics who agree that a study would be useful and is needed.

    Secondly, hopefully without appearing self-contradictory, I disagree that my ideas are conceptual plasters in their entirety – a view I hold because I’ve personally witnessed hundreds of students who have benefitted from these approaches over the course of many years and the vast majority of those learners have achieved their qualification aims – even in the face of obstacles, including being taught by lecturers who did not understand or fully accommodate their individual learning needs.

    All of the ideas I offered have at sometime worked for myself and others and are meant to give a baseline from which colleagues can engage with the ideas (and the vaious research studies for themselves).

    Regarding TA-student interaction in the classroom, I’ve always taken a fiercely, hard-line approach that student independence from my support is always superseded by any curriculum aims or objectives. That approach has sometimes caused me difficulties especially with NQTs who hadn’t been trained in how to effectively deploy support or set in their ways lecturers who believed I was there to “support them”.

    Regarding research, Rob and Peter’s research, while groundbreaking and essentially illuminating, still didn’t answer my questions as to why FE teacher training programmes left me at the mercy of well-meaning teachers who hadn’t been trained to effectively deploy me. Neither did I learn why over a 13 year period I only received 8 lesson plans in “non-observed’ sessions but “always” got a session plan in formal observations. No research project tells me why lecturers received a host a benefits when achieving Grade 1 observations, but I just get a pat on the back – even though I (substituting “I” for the LSA role) had been instrumental in making many of those lessons run smoothly. I’m yet to read a research project that tells me why no FE author has included effective deployment of learning support in their teacher training books (although I’m currently working with one on changing this) or why FE Award ceremonies recognise individual teachers but not the individual LSAs who support some of their most needy and vulnerable students. Neither does the research tell me why qualifications for LSAs in FE concentrate solely on primary and secondary pupils and fails to consider theorists such as Knowles and Hase and Kenyon (regardless of whether they are right or not). Further, research fails to tell me why the FELTAG agenda wasn’t widely disseminated to show LSAs how they can use learning (as opposed to assistive) technology to help learners prepare for work or further study. Neither does research provide insight into epistemological, phenomenological or ontological perspectives of the support assistant narrative in the FE sector in the light of challenges such as austerity, GCSE English and maths, area review and most critically – the observation of teaching and learning. No other group in FE have such a broad insight into what outstanding through to inadequate teaching looks like – even though they don’t have the training or authority to pass comement, but where are the studies that capture this? Finally, research does not show the value of LSA tacit knowledge regarding classroom dynamics – especially with regard to how learners respond to different lecturers and learning environments.

    I don’t make these points to discredit Rob and Peter’s excellent research, but to make the point that, as FE LSAs, there are so many different aspects of our identity that remain unexplored in the literature and as such when “we” read research about “us” we too have a perspective that is yet for us to disseminate on our own terms and in our own way.

    That said, I found this address by Peter Blatchford at Melbourne Uni extremely helpful, having watched it prior and commented prior to writing the article for Dan’s blog https://youtu.be/mza1lTC0cd0 (it says 1 month ago, probably because it’s not yet exactly two whole month’s ago).

    I do feel, that there’s a really good opportunity for you and I to maybe collaborate or further share ideas regarding new models of working with support and repeat my offer to discuss by phone. It may be easier in the long run. If not, I am really grateful for your engagement and challenge to my ideas – it’s very rare to find this type of debate (especially in an FE context) and I think there is good opportunity for this type of discussion to be further extended.

    Best regards. (and apologies for any typos – it took a good while to write this response😀)

    1. No judgment on typos here. I asked Dan to remove my first draft because it was so poorly done on my phone. Yours is a lot better.

      Your response was interesting, passionate and informative unfortunately it is has gone off in about a dozen different directions, each interesting. We really need to talk via email/phone (can Dan help us with this) as I am somewhat enthused by having someone to finally talk to about this stuff.

      Let me finish my IQR week and I will get back to you with some ideas on the original topic ‘providing teachers with 10 great tips to maximise the use of teaching assitants.’

      The other questions should probably be discussed privately and maybe fed back to Dan in the form of a new topic.

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