The factors affecting the capacity for learning are related to the capacity for relationship. In order to enable such children to improve access to learning, one has to pay particular attention to processes of relationship. (Greenlalgh, 1994)
Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral invented his first touch fastener in 1941 when he returned from a walk in the woods and wondered if the cockleburs that clung to his trousers and his dog’s coat could be turned into something useful. The stiff hooks of the bur that he observed under his microscope became the inspiration for Velcro.
The term ‘Velcro TA’ is disparaging then. It implies that a TA who supports one child, rather than being linked to a subject let’s say, is a bur-like, clingy thing that just can’t be shaken off. It implies that the SENCo has deployed resources in a wasteful, mindless and, worst of all, a counter-productive way. It suggests a lack of ambition for children with SEND – the pesky TA one who actively thwarts a pupil’s progress towards independence.
Now if a SENCo were to simply deploy TAs according to statemented hours, after the ‘Velcro model’, then that would indeed be misguided. Rob Webster’s important Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants promotes a much more robust, strategic and evidence-based approach. It’s based on his seminal research which showed, among other things, that pupils supported by TAs had fewer interactions with both the classroom teacher and with their peers. Their progress was subsequently slower than that of similar pupils who were not supported in this way.
However, it doesn’t follow that one-to-one support is intrinsically wrong and that, at secondary level, all TAs should be deployed within departments such that pupils encounter four or five of them a day. If this were a blanket policy, I would have real concerns for that most vulnerable group of children whose social and emotional needs can only be met through a nurturing relationship with a consistent adult. I think if we were better at measuring wellbeing, we would have a fuller appreciation of the fundamental importance of this role.
Here, Louise Bomber is instructive.
Time and again in her writing, she returns to the fact that the experience of trauma and loss within a close significant relationship can have serious consequences for the emotional wellbeing and social capacities of children. However, neuroscience also tells us that new and more sophisticated neural pathways can be formed in the child’s developing brain, and new patterns of relating and behaving can emerge – when there is a ‘good enough’ other. An adoptive parent, therapist, mentor – or TA.
The patterns of attachment behaviours are laid down in infancy but are moderated by later experiences of other significant relationships which can meliorate adverse experiences in primary relationships. (Geddes, 2006)
Neural pathways are ‘experience dependent’. In the presence of a ‘good enough’ relationship, new synaptic connections can be made, joining up neurons in the pre-frontal cortex. This part of the brain can then come on-line. The sooner this occurs, the better, since the child who has experienced trauma and loss early in life will have social and emotional catching up to do. Bomber concludes that “the need to give these children a reparative relationship experience is urgent.”
There’s nothing more rewarding for a SENCo than to observe from a distance the rewiring Bomber describes. I was priveliged to work with a TA who was perfectly suited to the key adult role. (It’s not for all). He assumed it when we discovered that he was the only person who could coax a pupil – I’ll call him James – out of his mum’s car in the mornings. (James had no ECHP, by the way. Ours wasn’t a Velcro TA deployment model.) He was also the only one who could get James into lessons when he refused, which was often during Year 7. And the only one who could get him to talk – try – believe in himself (though this was a slow awakening).
James could easily have been permanently excluded for persistent defiance – were it not for the patience and persistence of a steady, empathic TA who never gave up in him – and a school that didn’t either. He now has a realistic chance of achieving good GCSEs. Whatever his grades, though, he has already exceeded everyone’s expectations, and most of all his own. This was a boy who was regularly restrained during the primary years and whose stated ambition on transfer to secondary was to be permanently excluded. (He was terrified.) His relationship with a very special TA has been transformative, life-changing.
It’s been important for the TA too, of course. These strong bonds that we form with our most vulnerable pupils, it’s love that forges them, not Velcro.