Lollygagger or learning difference??

six assorted color lollipops
Photo by on

How do schools create ‘lollygaggers’?

Teacher and TA dynamics


I was pretty disheartened by a post from Ben Newmark, expressing frustration at the ‘lollygaggers’ in his classroom, the needy students with ‘learned helplessness’.

Apparently, his most read post.

What is particularly worrying is the level of ignorance displayed by some teachers; the lack of understanding around the child’s previous journey through education, and what low working memory or processing difficulties look like.

It seems to me that the teacher and TA dynamic is a key theme here. Unless this relationship works, it is likely to impact negatively on outcomes for children and on staff wellbeing. Interventions outside of the classroom may be successful but the student may then go back into class and not transfer what they have learned. It is vital that these skills are embedded and this requires communication.

There has been a world movement in education toward accountability and performability at governmental level, by imposing tests, targets and data collection without detailed consultation with the profession, as follows (Hancock and Eyres, 2004):

  • 1988 National Curriculum introduced
  • 1991 Standardised Assessment tests (SATs) and use of published league tables of school performance in 1992.
  • 1992 OFSTED formed
  • 1998 NLS National Literacy Strategy
  • 1999 NNS National Numeracy Strategy

The role of the TA has changed considerably and there has been a significant increase in numbers employed in mainstream schools in England in the last 15 years (Department for Education and Skills, 2005). The majority of TAs are female; 92 percent compared with 74 percent of teachers. Blatchford, Russell and Webster (2012) give two reasons for the rise in TA numbers:

  • Concern over teacher workload and retention leading to the National Agreement.
  • Increased role for TAs in supporting SEN students. (pg4)

The high numbers of TAs working with students with SEND led to research in their effectiveness, led by Peter Blatchford. The Deployment and Impact of Support Staff project (DISS) (Blatchford et. al. 2009a and 2009b) raising serious questions about how TAs are deployed. It is argued that it is decisions about rather than by TAs which might be inhibiting their effectiveness (Blatchford et. al. 2010).

In the teachers’ standards, TAs are barely mentioned, merely stating that it is a teacher’s responsibility to:

‘deploy support staff effectively’. (DfE, 2011 p.13.

The professional standards for TAs (Unison et al, 2016) states that:

The primary role of the TA should be to work with teachers to raise the learning and attainment of pupils while also promoting their independence, self-esteem and social inclusion’ (Unison et al, 2016 p5).

This suggests that there are inconsistencies, with the government suggesting a ‘leadership and management’ role for teachers, rather than collaboration as suggested by the National Agreement (Howes, 2003 p.148).

Suggestions for creating more collaborative practices between teachers and TA’s could be less effective if:

‘they leave untouched relations of power that positions TAs in a subordinate role to teachers’, (Trent, 2015 p29).

In a recent study, Griffiths and Kelly (2018), TAs were encouraged to reflect upon the specialist dyslexia training they had received and the impact on their settings. In particular, they reflected on the impact of their status as an ‘expert’ upon: school policies, culture and practice. ‘Enabling’ (positive moderators) and ‘blocking’ (negative) factors were identified. The study found that communication was an issue with:

‘…little opportunity taken by class teachers to follow up the work done by the specialist TA in most cases’ (p352).

It seems then that difficulties in communication between teachers and TAs may be hindering the learning process and that hierarchical factors may be at play.

85 percent of TAs work part time, compared to 23 percent of Teachers and this may also have an impact on communication, as there may be less consistency.

Moreover, in additional to poor communication, there may be deeper, ideological issues at play which Griffiths and Kelly dub ‘the paradox of the expert’ (p. 354). This is not the first time this concept has been raised. Bell (2013) suggested that the specialist practitioner is often perceived as expert and ‘other’, taking a Foucauldian approach, he suggests that special education is viewed as a field for experts or specialists, perhaps because areas of it are so highly medicalised.

Thomas (2009) notes that mainstream teachers may be made to feel that they:

‘…may not be sufficiently knowledgeable or sufficiently expert to help children who are experiencing difficulty: that they do not have sufficient technical expertise or theoretical knowledge to teach all children. (2009, p.21)

This may help to explain why teachers seemed less involved with students with SEND in the DISS study into TA effectiveness (2009). The results from this study suggested that TAs were not effective. However, certain circumstances make it hard for TAs to be effective. Collaboration seems key.

Some key issues:

  • There is a myopic emphasis in Primary on ‘Greater Depth’ children, as if the SATs were an end to a child’s learning journey.
  • Practitioners will not identify children ‘at risk’ of failure in the Early Years.
  • Many children are left to struggle, clinging to one to one support to stay afloat.
  • By KS2, teachers feel powerless because the child is so far behind.
  • By KS3 teachers expect a level of independence, have no learning support and, in some instances, blame the child.
  • By KS3 the amount of auditory information/ direct instruction increases, whilst working memory capacity may have developed, many CYP will not have learned strategies and are disaffected – becoming ‘helpless’.


As one individual put it: I have missed the bus and will never catch up.

Who creates ‘learned helplessness’ in the classroom?

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top