Paul has worked in FE colleges for over 13 years as an Learning Support Assistant, lecturer and academic support tutor.
During my time working in the Further Education sector I’ve had many conversations with colleagues, students and friends about the purpose of the role of a Learning Support Assistant (LSA). I’m always clear about what I believe an LSA is there to do. An effective LSA helps to enable and empower students to complete a course of study with a measurably greater degree of independence or autonomy than when the student started. LSAs might typically help students to achieve greater independence and autonomy by moving the student through the following stages. Initially, support workers work with teachers to identify areas of study which students find challenging. Subsequently, LSAs and teachers seek to devise strategies to help students to overcome those challenges. Subject tutors might then incorporate those strategies into their schemes of work and lesson plans, communicating and collaborating with LSAs on an ongoing basis to ensure that the support methods are right for the learner. LSAs then work with their students to set clear goals, use targets and timeframes to help to give the student’s support approach structure and meaning. Goals and targets are monitored, reviewed and evaluated by the teacher, the student and the LSA at regular intervals. Then, as the student makes greater progress towards working independently, the LSA gradually reduces the level of support. Finally – and most crucially – as soon as it is safe and appropriate to do so, the LSA seeks to withdraw the support altogether. Ideally, the LSA will be in a position to withdraw support at least one term before the end of the course. Early withdrawal of support can result in affording the student the optimum opportunity to practise and develop the techniques and strategies for themselves and gain a positive sense of achievement from doing so.
The role and purpose of an LSA, then, may be described as essentially an agent of positive change because the role primarily exists to help to change a student’s mindset from that of “I didn’t think I could ” to “now I know I can”. Given that the main task of a support worker is to shift students’ mindsets from reliant to independent, many aspects of the work of an effective LSA might also therefore be described as transformative in nature. For example, Learning Support as a discipline and pedagogy in its own right, embodies elements of positive psychology focusing on helping the student to thrive and make their course of study as meaningful as possible by helping them to achieve the best outcome. Growth mindset and grit are also involved as the LSA works with the student to not only believe that they can overcome obstacles, but stay the course when things become difficult. LSAs also incorporate visualisation as a strategy – focusing intently on the end result while helping the student to concentrate on following their passion for their core subject. Of course, following one’s passion, while important, is not enough to gain a qualification. LSAs are also instrumental in helping students to develop those all-important skills for everyday life, employment or further study. Learning Support as a discipline might also be described as emancipatory in nature because the focus on independence rather than reliance seeks to help to set the student free from the need to seek help from sources outside of themselves. Ultimately, however, the role of the LSA is transformative in nature because it can help students to redefine the story they tell themselves about themselves. Past failures can be helped to be turned into successes, setting a pattern of success for the rest of the student’s academic journey – and beyond. The pride and confidence derived from no longer needing a support worker can do wonders for a student’s self-esteem, providing the initiative to try things for themselves that they previously may have considered unachievable.
Of course, like any discipline or practise, implementing effective learning support has its challenges and results will differ based on circumstances, student need and pace of learning, and staff understanding of the need for independence. It’s also important to remember that Learning Support is a three-way partnership between the student, the teacher and the LSA. In order to truly transform the student’s learning journey to independence, all three need to buy into the need for that independence from the outset. The challenges are real and cannot be underestimated, however the value to the learner and the sense of reward for the teacher and LSA can be deep, long-lasting and equally transformative in nature.