Leadership, SEND, Support staff

Voices from the field: Support staff #RDDR – recruitment, deployment, direction and retention+

By Anita Devi with Lindsey Kelly

It is that time of year, where we start thinking about staffing for next year. Over the last few weeks, conversations with colleagues have focused heavily on support staff. Broadly speaking, the conversations fall into four categories primarily: recruitment, deployment, direction and retention+. In this blog, Lindsey and I share a few thoughts on the subject.


Recruiting staff is not easy. It’s about a two-way match. It requires a lot of time input and sometimes the yield is not fruitful. Recruitment experts tell me time and time again, investing time in a clear Job Description (JD) and Person Specification (PS) saves hours of shortlisting and re-advertising when the pool isn’t wide.

Top tip 1:

I use to always ask someone external to the organisation to read my adverts.

  • Does the advert, JD and PS make sense to a stranger?
  • Does the advert evoke the right interest or is it too broad?

We know our organisations too well and sometimes in communicating who we are and what we do, we miss the obvious.

Top tip 2:

With the pressure of fulfilling statutory duties of support under Education Health Care Plans (EHCPs) the temptation is to appoint because we need someone in place. However, many experienced Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCOs) will share, it is better to wait and recruit the most suitable person, than just fill the role. The latter can be costly in the long-run.

The same is true of appointing SENCOs (and their equivalent job titles, including multi-academy trust wide SEND Leads). Sometimes, practitioners are great in the classroom – this doesn’t necessarily equate to being effective in leading on special educational needs and disability (SEND). At the interview stage for SENCOs, it is important to consider legislation, SEND knowledge and broader questions around leadership.

Top tip 3:

The Provision Review methodology developed by TeamADL provides governors and school/ college leaders with absolute clarity on bespoke high quality teaching, in their setting. The two page outcome document is powerful to include in any recruitment pack, as it stipulates minimum expectations succinctly. When recruiting support staff, further information is included on what success in supporting a learner looks like in the organisation.

Deployment and direction

Lindsey Kelly and I have been discussing recently the correlation between intentional deployment of support staff by leaders and effective directions by class/subject teachers in the classroom. Lindsey is currently undertaking a Masters degree at UCL, London examining how learners, identified as SEN Support also receive the support they need. As an Inner London Primary SENCO, this is Lindsey’s story of leading in the field: SEN Support – rethinking teaching assistant (TA) deployment:

SENCOs are highly knowledgeable about the children in their settings who have an Education Health and Care plan (EHCP), due to their invested involvement in both the pupils and the paperwork. Not to mention their sighs of relief and whoops of joy when a child’s EHCP is finally secured. Yet, in my experience, SENCOs, parents and teachers alike are often fixated on Section F of an EHCP and the number of 1:1 Teaching Assistant (TA) hours they are entitled to. This is completely understandable; parents want their children to have the best possible education and school experience, as do their teachers, and yet there is a misguided notion that 1:1 TA support enhances their attainment. Although understandable, this view may be questionable since the most qualified person in the room is often not working with these children directly. Additionally, and of equal importance, children with EHCPs are not the only children with SEN in our classrooms. What is happening for the children identified as requiring “SEN Support”? I am particularly interested in re-thinking school provision for these children, since they don’t have a dedicated TA to manage their timetable, tell them what work they need to do today, schedule their interventions and organise their lunchtimes for them.

We know through extensive research from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) on the effective deployment of support staff, that pupils receiving high levels of TA support make less progress than their peers. In fact, there is evidence of a negative impact on progress for pupils with more significant SEN, who usually receive the most TA support. In my experience, 1:1 involvement can often bring about learned helplessness. In a world where financing a TA is a luxury, schools and SENCOs need to re-think the allocation of resources in order to best support the needs of all their children with SEN. This is by no means easy, and a good working relationship with your headteacher is essential. With the National Statistics Office reporting 265,167 full-time equivalent teaching assistants in 2019-2020, an increase of over 1,000 on 2018, and the annual spend on these staff being in the region of £4.3 million, an average net spend of over £5,000 per pupil, now more than ever we need to show creativity and initiative when it comes to TA deployment.

In my two-form entry primary school setting, we did just that. Faced with an increasing number of pupils with EHCPs, as well as those identified as requiring SEN support, we realised that an ongoing increase in staff employment was not sustainable. Instead, when the next academic year was approaching, we asked our support staff who was interested in remaining as a regular class TA and who would like to be an SEN/Inclusion TA. This was insightful as we learnt that those who volunteered for this new SEN/Inclusion TA role felt that they had some agency and co-production alongside the class teachers, and were far more committed to the role. This led to a beneficial outcome for teachers, support staff and the students. As individuals we often thrive when we feel that our voice is heard or that our job has a positive impact, and in my opinion, the benefits of a considered approach to staff redeployment feeds into its success.

So what was this new role? The SEN/Inclusion TAs were class-based in the morning, when English and Maths lessons were usually taught, enabling an “all hands-on deck” approach. They were either allocated to a year group (across two classes), or to a specific class depending on the needs of the children in that phase. Instead of working 1:1 with the children with EHCPs, the Inclusion TA was able to move around the room and support any child with concerns around SEN. A lot of focus was placed on building up students independent learning skills. This included strategies when they became stuck, such as asking for help, asking their peers and moving on to the next question etc. On some mornings, the Inclusion TAs were fortunate enough to also work alongside a class TA as well as the teacher, but the expectation was that the Inclusion TAs would not be used for “regular” TA jobs, such as photocopying or checking reading books. Their primary function was to support the needs of children with SEN. The teacher allocated the Inclusion TA’s time accordingly, and as the SENCO, I was able to recommend short and effective interventions that could be done by the Inclusion TA in small groups. An additional advantage for myself and the students, was being able to share individual outcomes or targets for certain pupils which could be worked on with consideration by both the teacher and Inclusion TA. These were usually professional recommendations or taken from children’s SEN support plans, which reinforced better learning outcomes. In the afternoons the Inclusion TAs ran specific interventions across a phase group, such as Speech and Language or Zones of Regulation, or alternatively provided additional class support in lessons where needed.

Although this model may require further review and reflection, and its success depends on staff’s positive, aspirational attitudes towards pupils with SEN and good working relationships between teachers and support staff, it highlights one example of creative TA deployment. I urge other SENCOs and Headteachers to consider alternative ways of engaging TAs. After all, it is all staff’s responsibility to build a culture of best inclusive practice in the classroom.


As a school / college complete the following statements:

  • As leaders, our rationale for support staff deployment is …
  • Our expectation of classroom direction by teachers is …

As I have shared earlier, I’ve spent a lot of time recently talking through compliant models of EHCP support with schools, meeting the needs of SEN Support and also effective TA timetable monitoring. Simple tweaks have yielded significant returns. Even in a large secondary, with a two week timetable, there are simple ways of doing this to reduce workload and adapt for any absences. I’m a great believer in planning … so now it the time to start! Do get in touch, if we can help.

SEND Leader Planning Tools

One final thought … retention. It’s important to keep good staff, helping them to grow professionally and deepening their sense of contribution/belonging. How does the culture, ethos and vision of your school/college enable retention, at all levels? We have found, if there is clarity during recruitment, transparency in deployment and effectiveness in classroom direction, retention takes care of itself. Support staff not only stay, but extend their discretionary efforts; ultimately for the benefit of learners and the wider school/college community. That is why we call it Retention+

About the authors:

Lindsey Kelly graduated with a BSc in Psychology at the University of Leeds. She then went on to become a teacher in both mainstream primary and independent specialist sectors before establishing herself as a Primary SENCO in inner London. Lindsey was involved in obtaining IQM Centre of Excellence status for her setting and is currently undertaking her Master’s degree at UCL Institute of Education. Lindsey is passionate about reshaping policy and practice and believes that every child has the right to the highest standard of educational opportunities.

Anita Devi has held a wide range of SEND roles including SENCO, Senior Leader, School Improvement Advisor, local authority SEND Advisory Teacher and Healthwatch Trustee, Anita carries a wealth of experience in developing Leaders of Learning.  Her own teaching career spans early years to post grad in the UK and overseas and Anita lives her why through her belief in the joy of learning and the power of purpose.  In 2017, Anita was awarded the prestigious international Influential Educational Leaders Award for her SEND Leadership Pipeline strategy developing professionals from initial teacher training to advanced and experienced SENCOs.  Currently a PT PhD student, Changemaker Education Consultant & Founding CEO of #TeamADL (a not-for-profit) In 2019, the team were selected as finalists for The Disability Awards alongside some top multinational companies. More recently, working with NASBTT, Anita has written the first SEND book for Early Career Teachers.  #TeamADL have also launched in 2020 SEND Leaders Connect Advanced and SEND Leaders’ Appreciation Day.

#TeamADL You know, we know SEND Leadership – subscribe to our blog and follow us on social media to keep up to date www.teamadl.uk

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