Workplace learning for Learning Support Assistants in a special school

  • Trudi Martin

Student thesis: Phd


This research explored the factors that influence whether Learning Support Assistants (LSAs), who support the learning of pupils with very complex learning needs, are equipped with the necessary skills to help these students learn. A significant feature in the delivery of educational support to pupils with low incidence needs is that it is LSAs who provide the majority of educational instruction and, furthermore, these paraeducators work with only limited supervision from class teachers. It therefore follows that if high quality educational assistance is to be available to pupils, then those undertaking the majority of this support need to have appropriate pedagogical knowledge. I explored this complex subject by undertaking a workplace ethnography at a single special school over the course of an academic year. In my ethnography, I used a number of data collection methods, including semi-structured interviews with teachers, LSAs and therapists, as well as participant and non-participant observations. The limited literature on the topic of LSA learning concludes that they are not being provided with the learning opportunities they need for the demanding work they do. However, because of the scarcity of information in the literature pertaining to the development of this important group of the educational workforce, I needed to look to the literature on organisational learning more broadly to inform my work and relate it to my own area of interest. The lack of priority given to non-formal learning was a key theme across these texts, with opportunities for participative learning emerging as an important feature. However, this aspect alone could not explain the reasons why these paraeducators did not have access to learning provision appropriate to their needs and so I looked to other theories of workplace learning. The conceptual and analytical approach of the Working as Learning Framework (WALF) (Felstead, et al., 2009), with its incorporation of the concepts of systems of production, discretion, and learning environments and territories, offered me the opportunity to scrutinise the situation regarding the learning and development of LSAs from a wide perspective. Through my adoption of the WALF I have identified the influences that shaped the workplace learning environment of the LSAs at the special school. In doing so, I have added to the limited research on this important and yet inadequately understood group. Although my study focused on one special school this research can inform how the abilities of paraeducators in different educational settings can be developed, because of my adoption of the theoretical standpoint of the WALF. Furthermore, by applying the WALF, my thesis has utilised workplace learning theory to make an important intellectual contribution to the discussion about how high quality educational provision can be delivered. My thesis is also apposite, because the number of children with more complex learning difficulties is increasing and these individuals require specialist paraeducators to be appropriately equipped to meet their needs, whether they are being educated in special or mainstream schools.
Date of Award31 Dec 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorLeo Mccann (Supervisor) & Ruth Lupton (Supervisor)


  • Special school
  • Ethnography
  • Complex learning difficulties
  • Special Educational Needs
  • Working as Learning Framework
  • Learning Support Assistant
  • Workplace learning
  • Teaching Assistant

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