It is changed beyond all recognition: exploring the evolving habitus of assistants in special schools

Una O’Connor, Felicity Hasson, Christine McKeever, Jayne Finlay

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3 Citations (Scopus)
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The assistant workforce is a constituent presence in all schools. Progressive reconfiguration of the role has resulted in a hybrid position, with assistants customarily navigating power relationships in the hierarchy of the school. This paper employs Bourdieu’s theory of social fields, in particular, his system of relations, as a means to consider the intersection of habitus and capital amongst assistants in special schools in Northern Ireland. Using this analytic approach, focus group interviews with Classroom Assistants and Health Assistants explored their current deployment, their interaction with each other and with teachers. Data was collected from 47 participants across 7 special schools, with interviews transcribed and thematically analysed. Findings revealed assistants as a workforce in transition, whose conventional habitus has been steadily disrupted by a supply and demand culture often at variance with the origins of the post. Whilst such divergence has the potential to create a site of struggle, the burgeoning social and cultural capital held by assistants has, instead, re‐configured their perceived position within the special school environment, creating more porous professional boundaries and an increasingly fluid professional identity. These explanatory insights offer a fresh perspective for further research into this pivotal yet under‐researched group in Northern Ireland.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)146-155
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Research in Special Educational Needs
Issue number2
Early online date19 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 25 Apr 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the Baily Thomas Charitable Foundation. The authors acknowledge the constructive comment and feedback provided by Prof Linda Clarke and Dr Jessica Bates.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of National Association for Special Educational Needs.


  • Assistants
  • Bourdieu
  • capital
  • habitus
  • special schools


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