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

Una O'Connor, F. Hasson, Christine McKeever (Shannon), Jayne Finlay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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 theoretical base 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 focus group interviews being transcribed and thematically analysed by a team of researchers. Findings revealed assistants as a workforce in transition, whose conventional habitus was increasingly disrupted by a supply and demand culture often at variance with the origins of the post. Whilst this has the potential to create a site of struggle, assistants’ burgeoning social and cultural capital suggested instead potential for a re-formulated interpretation of habitus that provides fresh insight into this pivotal role in the special school system.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Research in Special Educational Needs
Early online date18 Feb 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 18 Feb 2021


  • assistants
  • special schools
  • Bourdieu
  • habitus
  • capital

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