When I graduated with a degree in Psychology, all I knew was that I wanted to work with people and I sort of stumbled across a local job as a teaching assistant. I decided that this role would be good experience for a couple of years before I chose what I really wanted to do with my career. Twenty-one years later and I am proud to say I am still a teaching assistant and could not be happier with the career path I have followed. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to harness this passion to support and promote the work of other teaching assistants (TAs), both locally and nationally, through the formation of the Suffolk TA Network.

Predominantly funded by the Ipswich Opportunity Area, the Suffolk TA Network currently has a thriving membership of over 400 TAs from all phases and settings across the county. We offer a comprehensive termly training and networking programme, complemented by half-termly newsletters written by our members and relevant organisations. We have been overwhelmed by the appetite for such a service and believe we have filled a much-needed gap in professional support. Although networks and training opportunities have been commonplace for teachers and senior leaders for a long time, teaching assistants have lacked these vital opportunities to develop their practice alongside colleagues. As we have grown, we have been privileged to begin supporting other counties to create their own professional networks and extend this crucial work with TAs across the country.

While teachers are experts in subject knowledge and pedagogy, I believe TAs are experts when it comes to the specific needs of pupils. The nature of the TA role provides the opportunity to develop a holistic understanding of each pupil and how they learn best. Many schools I work with are now recognising this through deployment and training by creating specialist TA roles for a variety of SEND areas, such as dyslexia, ASD and SLCN. This allows members of staff to become experts, developing a range of effective support strategies and resources to meet individual learning needs. These specialist teaching assistants are then able to disseminate their knowledge through staff training, mentoring and professional conversations. This not only supports schools to meet the needs of all pupils, but raises the profile of teaching assistants as essential educational professionals.

The training programme provided through the Suffolk TA Network – and other emerging regional networks – offers teaching assistants ownership over their professional development journeys and the chance to build on specialist areas. We regularly survey the CPD requirements of our members based on the needs of the pupils they support. This allows us to create a bespoke offer, particularly aiming to address areas of training that are not widely catered for, such as ADHD and dyscalculia.

This year we began working in collaboration with Suffolk County Council Education Outreach Service for Speech, Language and Communication and NHS speech and language therapy services in Suffolk to address a significant identified area of need – speech, language and communication (SLCN). According to the charity I CAN, one in ten children in the UK struggle to speak and understand language, and this rises to one in four for disadvantaged areas (https://ican.org.uk/about-us/). Since September, our members have accessed half-termly twilight training sessions on a variety of key SLCN topics and we have been overwhelmed by the positive response this has elicited. By building knowledge and strategies across the year, teaching assistants are able to benefit from the iterative nature of sessions, continually revisiting, evaluating and embedding learning.

“I believe TAs are experts when it comes to the specific needs of pupils. The nature of the TA role provides the opportunity to develop a holistic understanding of each pupil and how they learn best.”

We are thrilled to be culminating this year-long learning journey with our first face-to-face annual TA conference on National TA Day – 16th September 2022. Continuing our collaboration with local SLCN services, we are developing a speech, language and communication themed day entitled ‘Start Talking About Communication’. This is the first solely TA focussed professional conference I am aware of and it will offer our members a whole day of professional learning, crucial networking and collaboration with colleagues from around the county. Teaching assistants will experience a programme of talks by local SLCN specialists and have the opportunity to share best practice and spotlight successes within their settings.

If you had asked me in the summer of 2020, when the Suffolk TA Network was simply a dream, if this was all possible, my answer would have been ‘no way’. I could never have imagined the adventure we have been on, but I am so proud of what the Suffolk TA Network and its amazing members have achieved in such as short space of time. I firmly believe that TA networks are the future and offer a successful, supportive and sustainable vehicle to enable our teaching assistant workforce to be the best that it can be.

If you are interested in the work of the Suffolk TA Network or developing your own TA network, please contact suffolktan@westbourne.attrust.org.uk and follow us at www.suffolktanetwork.co.uk and on Twitter @SuffolkTan

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