'Teacher's use you'. Knowledge, discourse, and the role of the teaching assistant

L. Dunne, C. Woolhouse

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


The number of teaching assistants working in UK schools has increased. Traditionally, the teaching assistant role has been seen to operate on the margins of staff hierarchies and power relations within schools. With the advent of workforce remodelling, teaching assistants are seemingly afforded more working autonomy and opportunity for career development than in the past (Dunne et al., 2008). This paper presents aspects of a longitudinal study that explored the personal and professional experiences of a group of teaching assistants, all female, who support teaching and learning in schools. The teaching assistants were studying for a Foundation Degree in learning support at a university in the northwest of England. Their views on professional and personal experiences were sought and captured intermittently through a series of questionnaires and focus group interviews conducted over a three-year period. Of particular interest to the researchers were the teaching assistants’ perceptions of themselves as professionals; their perceptions of ‘education’ and ‘knowledge’, and their positioning within schools. The study signified that, despite school workforce remodelling (Department for Education and Skills [DfES] 2003) and professional development courses for support staff, the role is open to mis-appropriation or exploitation (Dunne et al., 2008). This paper presents some of the main findings of the research study and then focuses in particular on the discourses deployed by the teaching assistants throughout the research project. It draws on Foucault’s notion of discourse as practice (Foucault, 1972) and power/knowledge to show how, as a group of educators, teaching assistants are invited to operate within a discourse of care that is entwined with a neo-liberal discourse of instrumentalism that prioritises ‘usefulness’ and ‘useful knowledge’. It is argued that the forms of instrumental discourse that circulate in schools, and elsewhere, subjugate alternative meanings or understandings of ‘care’ ‘knowledge’ and ‘education’, and potentially enable and legitimate insidious forms of oppression.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2009
EventEuropean Educational Research Association (EERA) European Conference on Educational Research (ECER) - Vienna University, Vienna, Austria
Duration: 26 Sept 200930 Sept 2009


ConferenceEuropean Educational Research Association (EERA) European Conference on Educational Research (ECER)


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