Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 1 July 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection
Role of Special Needs Assistants: Discussion
Our guests should switch off their mobile telephones completely or put them on safe, aeroplane or flight mode, as they will otherwise interfere with the broadcasting equipment. I draw witnesses' attention to the fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Their opening statements submitted to the committee will be published on its website after this meeting. Committee members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
While there might be related broader issues, the purpose of this meeting is specifically to examine the role of special needs assistants, SNAs. Last year, Senator Moran undertook the task of preparing a report as rapporteur on the issue of the role of SNAs. She has done considerable work on this matter, including by consulting with a range of stakeholders. Written submissions were received, collated and so on. We also held meetings that will inform the report.
Today is an opportunity to engage directly with a group of key stakeholders so as to enable the report to move towards a conclusion. In this regard, I welcome from the National Parents Council - Primary, Ms Áine Lynch; from the trade union IMPACT, Mr. Dessie Robinson and Ms Joan McCrohan; from the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, Ms Teresa Griffin and Mr. Niall Feeney; and from the Department of Education and Skills, Mr. Jim Mulkerrins. To get the proceedings under way, I invite Ms Lynch to make her presentation on behalf of the National Parents Council - Primary, NPC.
Ms Áine Lynch:
I thank the committee for this opportunity. The role of the SNA is clearly defined in the Department's circular 0030/2014. Under its terms, the NPC considers that the SNA scheme is effective in meeting the needs of children who have specific care needs. It supports children who have care needs that could not ordinarily be fully met by a teacher to access school placement. The NPC believes that the scheme has contributed significantly to the enhancement of students' experiences in school.
Notwithstanding this, however, the role of the SNA in the school needs to be more closely observed. Despite the clarity provided by the recent circular, parents continue to report that SNAs often engage in extended functions outside of those provided for. The NPC agrees with the value for money report that the "weight of educational research considers that the delegation of educational instruction to support staff is inappropriate and would represent an unacceptable departure from the role". Children with special educational needs require the most specialised and skilled professionals to support them in accessing the curriculum.
While the SNA entry requirements are, in the main, appropriate for the role as set out in the circular, they are not appropriate for the extended functions in which SNAs may be engaging. In addition to such extended functions, certain aspects of the role of the SNA as defined in the circular need further consideration in terms of SNAs' suitability to carry out their functions. Specifically, the NPC refers to section 7 of the circular on SNA support for pupils with behaviour-related care needs, which states:
The care role of the SNA, in instances where SNA support is sanctioned to assist with behavioural related care needs, is concerned with assisting the teacher to meet the care needs of the child by:- preserving the safety of the pupil and others with whom the pupil is in contact
- assisting to ensure the prevention of self injurious or destructive behaviour
- reinforcing good behaviour on the child's part and acting as a positive role model for the child
- assisting with recording data in relation to pupil behaviour and behavioural development
The skill and training required for the first two bullet points in particular of the SNA's role in terms of a child's behaviour-related care needs are significant and would require specific training. As is the case for SNA support for children with visual and hearing impairments, schools that require SNAs to work with children with behaviour-related care needs must ensure that they are equipped with the skills necessary to support the particular needs of those children.
The NPC believes that the allocation of SNA support should be clearly linked to an individualised care plan which has been prepared for the child and this is now clearly set out in Circular 0030/2014. This plan should be prepared in consultation with the parents of the child concerned, the child, where possible, and everyone who works with the child in the school and other environments. The plan would clearly identify the care needs of the child and how these needs would be met while ensuring that at all times a focus is maintained on the development of a child’s independence skills. The aim should be that as the child becomes more independent the need for SNA support reduces. The plan should reflect this and proactive steps should be taken to reach this goal. This aim, along with all other aims, should be communicated clearly to parents and the child. The level of need should be monitored regularly.
The NPC is concerned that an over-dependence on SNA support can lead to social isolation of children, as the presence of an adult can create a barrier and so make normal interaction more difficult. We would suggest that other types of support, including peer support, be examined further at school level. There is some evidence to suggest that peer support can have a positive impact on students' behaviour and can lead to a reduction in the need for SNA support.
The NPC believes that there should be an accredited compulsory basic training course for all SNAs. SNAs are often supporting the most vulnerable children within the school and basic training regarding understanding children’s needs, communication skills and basic child protection knowledge should be included in a short initial training course. The mere fact that the SNA is working under the supervision and guidance of the classroom teacher will not ensure they are able to effectively carry out their duties.
The NPC believes that parents should have support and information about the different resources available for their child in the education system and the function of each support. Parents often get caught in a fight for any resource rather than a fight for the right resource due to lack of information on their child’s needs and how these needs should effectively be met. The NPC also believes that special needs assistants are effective in supporting children with specific care needs to access mainstream schools. We are concerned that their remit has been extended beyond this to include an educational role. We believe that the best educational outcomes and overall experience of school for children with SEN would be achieved by children having their identified needs met by appropriate professionals.
I thank Ms Lynch for her presentation. The next presentation is from Mr. Dessie Robinson on behalf of IMPACT. Having read Mr. Robinson's submission I note that there are many issues mentioned in it that are not the subject matter of this meeting. While I understand the reason they are included in the presentation and I am not asking that he not refer to them, I am asking that when we come to the questions and answers session he focus on the role of SNAs.
Mr. Dessie Robinson:
I thank the committee for affording IMPACT the opportunity to up-to-date it on the position regarding special needs assistants, the situation they face and our own concerns regarding same.
IMPACT continues to invest in the education sector. It is the fastest growing area within the union. Since we established a dedicated education division just three years ago we have had two very successful biennial divisional conferences. We see the education division as providing a voice for all of those staff who work in our education system, other than teachers and academics who are already well represented by various trade unions. In truth, the workers who we represent are often forgotten or neglected but are crucial to the successful operation of our schools and colleges and to the outcomes that are achieved.
A large proportion of the divisional membership is comprised of special needs assistants. The expansion in the number of special needs assistants was a key element in the process of making mainstream schooling a reality for many of our citizens. The commitments contained in the different pieces of legislation enacted in the late 1990s and early 2000s were dependent on the provision of adequate care and teaching resources. Members of the committee will be aware of the population growth in this country over several years now. This has manifested itself in a sustained increase in the number of school-going children. When the financial, economic and fiscal crisis struck, one of the consequences was a Government decision to cap the overall number of special needs assistants. This cap remained in place for four years despite conditions that would suggest the existence of significant additional demand, namely, the increase in the school-going population.
The current Minister for Education and Skills deserves credit for securing additional posts, as announced last year. This followed an increase of 390 posts announced by her predecessor in the previous budget. However, these increases did not make up for the lost ground during the period 2009-12, particularly when account is taken of the relentless growth in this cohort of the population. It is vitally important that members of the committee understand that the employment situation of special needs assistants is markedly different to that of the vast majority of other public servants. Originally, the special needs assistant was linked directly to a particular child. Hence, the association in the mind of parents and the children with special education needs with "his", "her" or "my" SNA. In recent times, the policy has changed to one of access to an SNA rather than an individual SNA assigned to each child. The effect of this is that the school receives a particular allocation but is required to spread this over all of the children in the school with assessed needs.
The original connection between the special needs assistant and a particular child meant that when that child progressed or left the school for some other reason the SNA faced redundancy. In fact a specific redundancy scheme exists for SNAs. Unlike most other public servants special needs assistants do not enjoy relative security of employment. This places special needs assistants in a rather unusual position in the context of recent public service agreements. As committee members will know these agreements were based on commitments to, on the one hand, flexibility and co-operation with change in return for job security and, on the other hand, no further reductions in income. As SNAs do not enjoy job security in the first place the bargain was somewhat meaningless for them. As a result of IMPACT’s representations we secured the introduction of a supplementary assignment panel in 2013. Where an SNA is facing redundancy this provides the possibility of alternative employment as schools that have posts to fill are required to interview a selection of redundant SNAs in the first instance. This was a welcome development and the scheme was further improved in 2014. None the less, special needs assistants do not enjoy what would be regarded as normal public service security of tenure.
The big issue that has preoccupied special needs assistants since IMPACT was last before the committee is that of fragmentation of posts and casualisation of employment. When I was last here, I outlined some of the effects of the trend to fragment posts when the National Council for Special Education was making its allocations. This became an even greater problem in the 2014-15 school year. In several cases, our members working as special needs assistants had their hours cut, which also meant an associated reduction in income. As this violated the other key commitment on the part of the Government in the public service agreement-----
Mr. Dessie Robinson:
In a very large poll, we received an endorsement for action by a margin of almost 97%. In fairness to the current Minister, she has listened carefully to our concerns and representations and appears to have a good understanding of the difficulties. We were heartened by her remarks on 9 April 2015 at our education divisional conference and we responded to her invitation to participate in talks with the other stakeholders. These talks led to the Department issuing a circular on 12 June 2015, the terms of which place an onus on schools to offer additional hours in the first instance to part-time staff working in the school. We see this as a very positive and welcome development. Unfortunately, the announcement of the NCSE allocations for the next school year 2015-16 has been delayed. Normally these allocations are announced around mid-June. This allows schools and individual SNAs to plan in the knowledge of what jobs will exist in the school for the following year. I regret to say that our members have commenced school holidays in recent days without knowing their job situation for end of August, early September. This is totally unacceptable, as acknowledged by the Department of Education and Skills.
A secondary effect is that it makes it difficult to be definitive about the benefits accruing from the recent circular on casualisation of employment. It is imperative that the allocation figures become available to allow its provisions to operate effectively. Nothing less than this will be acceptable to IMPACT.
IMPACT has fought hard on behalf of special needs assistants just to secure progress on the related issues of job security and income protection that are at the heart of public service agreements since the Croke Park agreement was negotiated in March 2010. This should not be necessary. In our view, it would be preferable that SNAs were treated similarly to teachers, enjoying continuous employment depending on school-going numbers.
As I stated previously to the committee, the big issue for special needs assistants is respect or a perceived lack of it. There is a significant spend on the scheme under which special needs assistants are employed. We must move to a situation where the resource comprising the SNA population is properly respected and valued. Too often the special needs assistant is seen as a general dogsbody rather than an important asset to the classroom. Whether it is because their employment is seen as casual or for some other reason, there is no continuing professional development or in-service training programme for special needs assistants. This must be created if we are to maximise the return on what the State is investing. It is also vitally important that specific training modules are made available, so SNAs can better meet the needs of children with particular requirements.
It would be timely to have a review that would encompass all of these issues, and others, to ensure that the children who rely on the availability of special needs assistants will have their needs met in the best possible way. If there is a genuine openness on the part of the Department and other authorities to approach this in a truly collaborative fashion, IMPACT in its representational role would be happy to participate.
Ms Teresa Griffin:
I thank the committee for its invitation to attend this afternoon's meeting. I am accompanied by my colleague, Niall Feeney, assistant principal in the NCSE. I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute further to the committee's discussions on the role of the SNA and to provide an update since we last met in October 2013.
As advised previously, the NCSE is a very strong supporter of the SNA scheme. Without SNA support, many students would be unable to attend school. The scheme provides sufficient support to meet a student's care needs but also allows for this support to be faded over time in line with a student's development. The scheme also facilitates maintained or increased levels of support where this is needed.
The NCSE initially allocated 10,985 SNA posts to schools for last September, the start of the current school year. Since then, over 165 posts have been allocated in response to needs which emerged during the year. There are now some 11,150 SNA posts in schools. More than two thirds of these are in mainstream class settings.
Members might recall that at the last meeting, I outlined that the role of the SNA had been informally expanded by some schools to include an educational remit. Some parents, schools and professionals consider that an SNA is allocated to help with literacy difficulties or to provide therapeutic support, such as speech and language therapy. Often, when SNA care support is being faded out or withdrawn completely, a school might advise that they would like the SNA to do other work with a student such as working on improving a student's language, literacy, numeracy and so on.
In the 2014-15 school year, the NCSE processed 8,500 applications for SNA support. Of these, 3,000 or 35% did not come within the remit of the SNA scheme for these and other reasons. In the NCSE, we find this to be very worrying because each application for SNA support raises expectations and hopes, and when the applications are declined there can be disappointment, anxiety, sometimes even anger, and a belief that the NCSE is not doing its job properly or that "cuts" are the reason for non-allocation. This is not the case. In fact, the number of SNAs has increased by over 600 since 2013.
One of the issues being discussed is whether we should have teaching assistants. From time to time there is a suggestion that the role of the SNA should be expanded to include the provision of additional educational support to students with special needs. As a general rule, the NCSE considers the issue of whether to have teaching assistants to be much broader than special education. The conclusions of the research I referenced at our last meeting on the matter still remain relevant. The research studies I raised, which I have circulated again for the committee's convenience, raise serious concerns about the effectiveness of teaching assistant support for students with special educational needs. While finding some positive effects on teachers' workload and stress levels, these studies found the more support students received from teaching assistants the less progress they made in subjects such as English, mathematics and science; students with special educational needs spent over a quarter of their school time away from mainstream class, their teachers and peers; they were almost constantly accompanied by a teacher assistant who bore the greatest responsibility for planning and for teaching them; students could become over-dependent on teacher assistant support and socially isolated from other students; and despite the good intentions of teaching assistants, students with special educational needs received a less appropriate and lower quality educational experience than other students.
All of us are striving to ensure that Irish students with special educational needs do not receive a less appropriate or lower quality educational experience. One US study noted that the substantial increase in teacher assistant use in US schools had taken place without any compelling evidence that it is "educationally sound to deploy the least qualified personnel to provide primary instruction to students with the most complex learning characteristics". On the other hand, research findings consistently demonstrate a strong relationship between the quality of teaching, and the role of the teacher, and outcomes achieved by this group of students. As I said, I re-circulated some extracts from various research literature for members' information.
The NCSE provided policy advice to the Minister which takes on board the research findings and international best practice principles. The NCSE considers that there is insufficient evidence, at this point in time, to support the introduction of a new teaching assistant grade to work specifically with students with special educational needs. The research findings indicate that paraprofessionals can act as a barrier to a student's access to the teacher and full participation in classroom activities, and that it is the quality of teaching which determines better educational outcomes.
To conclude, while there is a very important role for the SNA in supporting the care needs of students, and the NCSE is a strong supporter of the SNA scheme, the NCSE believes that students with complex learning needs should be taught by fully qualified and experienced teachers equipped with the necessary skills to meet their needs. In our 2013 policy advice, Supporting Students with Special Educational Needs, the NCSE recognised the importance and centrality of the teacher in the education and care of all students, including students with special educational needs. Research findings consistently indicate that the quality of teachers and their teaching are the most important factors in determining educational outcomes for students with special needs.
The NCSE is very concerned that parents sometimes are not sure about the SNA scheme or are not sure how the educational system supports children with special educational needs. For some time we have been producing leaflets for parents, such as the one I have with me, to provide information to parents and guardians. This one relates to young people with a disability. However, we have just printed an information leaflet for parents and guardians of children and young people with special educational needs and I will leave some copies with the Chairman.
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
I thank the committee for the invitation to attend the meeting to brief members on the role of special needs assistants.
SNAs play an important role in assisting schools to support students with significant care needs and, since the scheme was first introduced, have substantially assisted the process of including students with special educational needs in schools. The Department of Education and Skills recognises that all children require care and attention in school. This is particularly true of younger children and infants. All schools therefore have a responsibility to provide for the care and well-being of all the pupils who attend their schools, including children with special educational needs.
The Department also recognises that there will be a significant number of children who, by virtue of their disability, will require additional care and attention. For these children, the SNA scheme is provided by the Department to assist recognised primary, post-primary and special schools to cater for their care needs, in an educational context. The special needs assistant scheme is designed to provide schools with additional adult support staff who can assist children with special educational needs who also have additional and significant care needs.
This support is provided in order to facilitate the attendance of those pupils at school, to minimise disruption to class or teacher time for the pupils concerned or their peers and with a view to developing their independent living skills.
The scheme has been a key factor in ensuring the successful inclusion of children with special educational needs in mainstream education and also with providing care support to pupils who are enrolled in special schools and special classes. In recent years the SNA scheme has been reviewed on two occasions. In 2011 the Department published a comprehensive value for money and policy review of the scheme, which was referenced by Ms Lynch earlier, and in June 2013, the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, published its report on supporting students with special educational needs in schools, which was referenced by Ms Griffin a moment ago.
In the preparation of these reports the NCSE and the review group engaged in significant consultations with stakeholders including schools, parents, pupils, management bodies and other interested parties to ensure that the broadest possible range of views and opinions were considered in the preparation of the reports. The value for money and policy review found that the SNA scheme, as mentioned by Ms Lynch, is supporting schools in meeting the needs of students with disabilities, who also have significant care needs, and that the scheme has assisted in enabling as many students as possible to be included in mainstream schools.
However, the review also found that the purpose of the scheme and the allocation process was generally not well understood within schools or by parents and that the deployment of SNAs in schools had in practice moved away from the objectives originally envisaged, namely, to provide for children’s care needs, and had moved towards SNA involvement in behavioural, therapeutic, teaching and even administrative duties. The review recommended that the criteria for the allocation of SNA support should be restated and clarified for both parents and schools. These findings were essentially echoed by the NCSE in its later report. However, the NCSE also made a number of additional findings and recommendations which the Department considered and has now begun to implement. The NCSE also completed a number of other reports.
In light of these recommendations, the Department published a comprehensive circular to give effect to a number of recommendations made in the review reports and to provide clarity to parents and schools on the role and purpose of SNAs. The circular was published in 2014 and a copy has been circulated to members for information. The circular provides clarification and guidance on the following matters: the role of the SNA; the description of care needs for which SNA supports are provided; the primary care tasks of SNAs; the secondary tasks which may be assigned to SNAs from time to time; the role of the classroom teacher and resource or learning support teachers and the role of an SNA to support those teachers; the role of medical and other professional reports or recommendations by medical and other professionals; SNA support for pupils with behaviour-related care needs; SNA support for children with visual and hearing impairment; and the NCSE allocations process.
In addition the circular clarifies that SNAs are allocated to schools to manage as appropriate. It identifies the role of the school in managing the resource and ensuring access of the SNA to the child as necessary. The circular also provides that SNA allocations should be reviewed on an annual basis and that, in the case of some allocations, they should be timebound in the expectation that the care need should diminish particularly with the ongoing support provided by the SNA. It also introduces a requirement that personal pupil plans should be in place, which should include a care dimension. The pupil plan should indicate how the SNA will meet the needs of the child and the timeframe for which this support is expected to be required.
Transition to post-primary is considered to be a critical time for a student with special educational needs. The circular requires that the child’s personal plan should recognise this and the focus of the plan should be on ensuring that the child’s care needs are, in so far as possible, ameliorated before moving to post-primary. Of course, some pupils, particularly those with physical disabilities or conditions with enduring needs, will continue to have a requirement for some level of access to SNA support and for some children there may also be short-term care needs as they transition to post-primary schools. In a small number of cases for pupils at post-primary age, emerging conditions or needs may only manifest as the child or young adult gets older. However, for the most part it should be expected that only students with chronic and serious care needs arising from a disability should continue to require SNA support in post-primary schools.
Not all children who have special educational needs or who have been diagnosed as having a disability, require access to SNA support. The allocation of additional adult SNA support should not generally be regarded as a prerequisite for a student with special educational needs to attend school. The purpose of the SNA scheme is to provide for the significant additional care needs which some pupils with special educational needs may have. At present, for example, some 42,000 children receive additional resource and learning support teaching supports while over 24,000 children receive access to SNA support. Accordingly, qualifying criteria for the allocation of SNA support include the following conditions: the child must be enrolled in and attending a State-funded primary, post-primary or special school; there must be a professional report including an assessment indicating that the child has a disability; and the care needs outlined in the assessment must be of such significance that they are beyond that which would normally be expected to be provided to a child by the child’s class teacher, support teacher, or other school teachers.
In general the care needs of qualifying children will fall into one of four categories: medical needs; physical impairment; sensory impairment; or danger to self or others. Of course, the type of significant care needs that pupils may have can be varied, depending on the nature or level of the disability or sensory impairment a child may have. While the list is not exhaustive, the following are some examples of the primary care needs which would be considered significant and which might require SNA support because the extent of assistance required, if it was to be provided by the class teacher, would overly disrupt normal teaching time: assistance with feeding or dressing themselves; assistance with toileting and general hygiene, including catheterisation, which is a less frequent occurrence, where a child with special needs cannot independently self-toilet, and until such time as they are able to do so; assistance with mobility and orientation on an ongoing basis including assisting a child or children to access the school, the classroom, with accessing school transport or helping a child to avoid hazards in or surrounding the school; assisting teachers to provide supervision in the class, playground and school grounds, for example, at recreation, assembly, and dispersal times; non-nursing care needs associated with specific medical conditions such as frequent epileptic seizures or for pupils who have fragile health including, where necessary and appropriate, the administration of medicines; care needs requiring frequent interventions including withdrawal of a pupil from a classroom when essential for safety or personal care reasons, or where a child with a disability may be required to leave the class for medical reasons or due to distress on a frequent basis; assistance with moving and lifting of children, operation of hoists and equipment; and assistance with severe communication difficulties, including enabling curriculum access for pupils with physical disabilities or sensory needs and those with significant, and identified social and emotional difficulties. This might include assistance with assistive technology equipment, typing or handwriting, supporting transition, assisting with supervision at recreation and dispersal times, etc.
That brings my comments to an end. I would be happy to answer any questions members may have.
I will begin by thanking the committee for facilitating today's discussion, which will feed into the report on the role of the special needs assistant, which I have undertaken as rapporteur. I welcome the representatives of IMPACT, the National Parents Council Primary, the Department of Education and Skills and the NCSE. Since taking over as rapporteur for the committee report on the role of the SNA, I have undertaken a wide consultation with educational stakeholders on this matter. I have met with many groups and individuals, held a public meeting, in addition to the previous ones, for SNAs and conducted an online survey, to which I received responses from over 2,500 SNAs. I have a great deal to say on how this will feed into it.
The representatives and groups here today met the committee a year and a half ago to discuss this matter. Their contributions have been noted and I requested this meeting in order for the groups and representatives to provide any further thoughts or observations. Since I have taken over this role in recent months, I have had the pleasure of speaking with many special needs assistants. The one thing that comes through, and everyone will agree, is the dedication and the passion they have for their jobs. On one of the nights when I had a meeting, it was freezing cold, lashing rain, some of them had travelled from Dublin, and I was really grateful to them for coming out in their free time. That is probably the first point I want to make, namely, how much of the work of SNAs is done off their own bat, often without any credit or acknowledgement.
The SNAs are also very anxious to have their role more clearly defined. The role is evolving. The special needs assistants are widely recognised as being crucial in providing accessibility to mainstream education for children with additional needs and at times provide the support necessary for some children even to attend school. Clearly they have a significant effect on the schools they work in and on our education system as a whole. Much of my reading, discussion and first-hand experience confirms that the role of the SNA has expanded beyond the role outlined in the circular on SNAs by the Department of Education and Skills.
To best support the child and to provide the appropriate employment and expectations for the SNA, we need to work together to strike the right balance. We cannot continue to ignore the reality which no longer matches the policy. I have a number of questions for the panel. I am not too sure I have time to ask the questions now.
My first question, and this feeds into all the submissions made today, relates to training. I think there is a significant need, and this is something that is being reflected back to me at all time. Let us bring it back to the basic requirement to fulfil the role of a SNA, which is three grade Ds in the junior certificate examination. The role outlined in the circular from the Department of Education and Skills includes catheterisation, assistance with toileting or care needs and giving medication, including dealing with EpiPens. There is no specific standardised training for this. I was alarmed at the responses I got. One person is actively engaged in catheterisation. If something goes wrong, what comeback do they have?
As I said, the basic qualifications are three grade Ds. Looking at the list of the thousands of reports that have come in, the qualifications of SNAs at present are way beyond that. In many cases the SNAs are more qualified than the teachers themselves, with some having qualifications ranging from PhD to a masters in child care, while others are nurses or people with degrees in intellectual disability. All of them are qualified to know what is going on. I can stand over my statement from personal experience that the SNAs are more qualified to know what is going on than the teacher who takes up his or her first job after coming out of college. I do not want to go off topic but we also need to look at the role of the teacher and the qualification and the standard that is required for teaching. We need a statement of priority on the SNA.
I wish to comment on Ms Teresa Griffin's point on parental involvement. As a parent of a child with special needs, I have a vested interest. I could not agree more with Ms Griffin as very often parents have no idea what the role of the SNA is, and when the SNA is taken from their child, they see that as a perceived cut. I think it is a good idea to have leaflets coming out but I think we need to get the message into schools that there should be more contact between the parents, the principals, the teachers and the parents. I have gone in for an individualised education programme, IEP, meeting every year and I have never met the SNA. The SNA is never involved. I will finish on that point but I will come back in later.
I welcome all our witness and I commend Senator Moran on behalf of the committee on her work as the rapporteur on this issue.
Three of the witnesses, with the exception of IMPACT, are of the view that the role of the SNA should remain as it is. The research that backs that up has been referred to but is there any research that contradicts it in any way? Is there evidence from international organisations that relates to the role of teaching assistants or SNAs that contradicts that in any way? Will IMPACT comment further on its views in relation to the development and expansion of the role and IMPACT's position on it?
In regard to the current number of SNAs and applications for SNAs in particular, will Ms Griffin outline to us the development in terms of the numbers of applicants for SNA posts in recent years and also the reason for the delay this year in informing schools of the number of SNAs they will have? I understand this work is normally done in the middle of June. Will Ms Griffin confirm the number of SNAs required to meet the demand, on which she has decided having assessed the applications received?
I thank all the witnesses. I also pay tribute to Senator Moran for the role she has undertaken as rapporteur.
My question is directed to the NCSE in respect of the 3,000 refused applications. Does the NCSE have numbers on how many of those 3,000 applicants would have had access to an SNA? How many of the 3,000 refusals were appealed and were successful on appeal? How many would have been referred to the Ombudsman for Children and would have been successful on appeal? I do not know if the witnesses have the figures now but perhaps they can be provided at a later date because I am interested in knowing them.
Most people are in agreement that the special needs assistant goes beyond the role as defined currently by the circular. If that is the case and it is not the role of the SNA, because they are providing additional resources or they are doing work that goes beyond their role, and if it is not the role of the teacher, then whose role is it to pick it up?
The representative from IMPACT mentioned in his contribution that the increase in the number of SNAs does not make up for lost ground. Does he have the figure that would be needed to make up for the lost ground, given the growing demographic and student numbers entering the system? What is his opinion on the proposal on teaching assistants? I would like him to comment on the use of the JobBridge scheme to employ SNAs.
On the issue of peer support-----
Will the representative from the National Parents Council expand on the issue of peer support? I have noticed when I speak to principals, those on the boards of management or parents of children with special educational needs such as dyslexia dyspraxia, Asperger's syndrome or elements of all three, that there would be consensus on the part of some parents that they would not want to have a full-time SNA attached to a student because of the reasons outlined in terms of difficulties in trying to explain it to other classmates or because it would not be seen as appropriate. Dyspraxia or Asperger's syndrome are learning difficulties but the student would have issues around toileting. I can understand the peer support programme and I wonder how it will work. There is no doubt that some students may need access to an SNA but may not necessarily need a full-time SNA.
I wonder how we can balance that.
My final question relates to the Department. Can the witnesses give us an update on the National Council for Special Education's resource allocation pilot scheme? How many schools are involved in it? Do they know how much it will cost to administer SNAs in accordance with that scheme? Do they have an opinion on the failure to provide for a full National Educational Psychological Service allocation? I think that failure needs to be addressed because it obviously ties in with the whole issue.
I thank the various bodies for their submissions. I thank Senator Moran, in particular, for the work she has done in her role as rapporteur on this important issue. Ms Lynch of the National Parents Council - Primary suggested that "an over-dependence on SNA support can lead to social isolation". One of the aims of any good teacher should be to make himself or herself redundant. This will happen if the teacher's pupils disgrace him or her with the knowledge they have. The same thing can be said of an SNA. A parent should be very happy if his or her child no longer needs an SNA in the school situation, as long as everything else is fine at the end of the day. We have to focus on that, but it should not be used as an excuse to take away an SNA. Nevertheless, it is a very good point. We should always remember that one of the roles of the National Council for Special Education and the Department of Education and Skills is to monitor that. I am interested in the idea of peer support for pupils with special needs who need SNA support. Does it contradict the assertion in the submission that SNA support is highly specialised? What type of peer support is envisaged? It is a good idea. It can happen. What are the limits and tolerances associated with it? Where are the avenues for such support?
I would like to say in response to the IMPACT presentation that the SNA role is developing in schools. I would say it has reached a maturation. I do not wish to be too critical. I do not know whether it is fair to say that the SNA is being treated as a "dogsbody" in our schools. Such a suggestion is very hard on teachers and, in particular, on principals. I would like to know how or in what way this can be said to be the case. What empirical evidence is there for it? Have industrial relations mechanisms been invoked? Has the question of the teacher treating the SNA like a "dogsbody" been negotiated and discussed with the Irish Primary Principals Network and other organisations? Having worked with SNAs as a school principal for many years, I find that suggestion very hurtful. I do not consider it to be true. I ask that it be explained to me. I was disappointed that the IMPACT submission never mentioned the children at all in terms of the role of the SNA. If IMPACT has a problem with the INTO or any other group, it should bring it to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. It should let people know that their fellow workers are treating other workers like a "dogsbody".
I welcome the witnesses to this afternoon's meeting and thank them for their time. I thank Senator Moran for bringing a focus to this relevant and important issue. It is clear from her contribution that she has done a great deal of background work on it. I genuinely and heartily welcome this committee's focus on the role of SNAs. This issue has been a passion of mine for my entire professional life, as a parent, as a politician and as a former principal. Special needs education has always mattered to me dearly. I genuinely welcome the opportunity to bring a focus to it today.
I want to begin by commending Ms Lynch, who probably summed up what I have been feeling on this issue for quite some time. I spent much of my time as a principal and as a classroom teacher trying to advise parents that less is sometimes more when it comes to resources. Special needs learning is not a numbers game. Ms Lynch hit the nail on the head, from my experience and my perspective, when she said that "parents often get caught in a fight for any resource rather than a fight for the right resource". There are good SNAs and SNAs who are not so good, just as there are good teachers and teachers who are not so good. I used to see children going out to resource teachers for 20 or 30 minutes of the school day. A good resource teacher is great for the child and for everybody, but a resource teacher who is not so good - they exist as well - will not be of much benefit to the child. Children in the latter set of circumstances can lose out on what is going on in the classroom socially and academically and in terms of a general overview of what is happening in the room.
We have to be careful not to get too tied up on numbers. While resources are important, numbers do not represent the bottom line. This is not like a maths academy. Special needs learning is much more complicated than that. It is really crucial for the role of the SNA to be brought to the fore in any discussion. Let us call a spade a spade - there are many SNAs who are quite unhelpful. Parents are beginning to realise that if the SNA is doing the homework or the sum for the child, because he or she sees that as the role of the SNA, it is very disruptive for the child's learning. Good awareness on everybody's part is needed to ensure people are clear on the role of SNAs. We need to ensure each SNA does not cross the line by becoming an enabler who prevents the child from participating and learning and who is a disruptive force rather than a productive one.
I cannot stress enough the importance of the discussion we are having here today. I would like to raise a couple of issues. I suggest that Mr. Robinson's contribution missed the point of this meeting. Perhaps it is the committee's fault for not advising him appropriately. I would have preferred to hear the union set out some of the feedback from its members who are SNAs on the ground about their frustrations with the role, their experience and understanding of the role and their desire for clarification of the role. That is what I was hoping to get from the union's presentation. Instead, I felt that it was a party political broadcast on behalf of IMPACT.
I would like to ask a few questions. One of my biggest fears and challenges relates to the transition from primary school to secondary school. This issue has not been addressed here. Do any of the witnesses have a contribution to make on that? I am thinking particularly of Ms Griffin and of the official from the Department of Education and Skills. Where are we in this regard? It seems to me that special needs provision at primary school level is fairly well advanced. It has come on in leaps and bounds. I am quite proud of the services that are available in our primary schools, but I have huge concerns about the transition to second level and the level of provision at that level. I would be interested to hear the witnesses' views on that.
Ms Griffin suggested that the role of SNAs is not understood by parents. I appreciated that she has presented a leaflet. I look forward to getting it in a while. I imagine we are 20 years into the SNA journey. I am not sure, but I am guessing that there were SNAs in our schools 20 years ago. Have we really spent 20 years trying to get this across to parents? Have we taken our eye off the ball?
This is not about apportioning blame. I am simply wondering why, after 20 years, parents still do not understand the role they have. One of the major problems is that parents feel they need a full-time special needs assistant or ten or 12 hours' resource teaching and so forth. This is the key to the issue. As long as parents do not fully understand the benefit and impact of these resources on their children's education, we will continue to lose the battle. While I welcome the leaflet, I wonder whether enough has been done in this regard over the past 20 years.
I recently submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister on the role of special needs assistants in individual education plans, IEPs. At a recent meeting with me, representatives of Autism West Cork were at a loss to understand the reason special needs assistants do not attend meetings on the preparation of an individual education plan. It appears this practice is widespread. I find it extraordinary and a matter of great concern that the special needs assistant is not present when the group of people who know the child best is preparing an individual education plan. The parents I met all understood that special needs assistants are not allowed to attend these meetings. This issue needs to be addressed.
The other issue is the need to address the transition cycle.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations and submissions and acknowledge the role of Senator Mary Moran, the joint committee's rapporteur on this issue, in bringing this issue to a head. I will make one observation before asking a few questions. Unlike many other members, I do not have teaching experience. As a parent and layperson, the contributions I have heard and the submissions I have read have opened my eyes. I, too, had come to assume that people would fight for more resource hours or special needs assistants without digging into what they were getting for the resources being allocated.
Since Circular 30/14 was issued, has there been any feedback on whether the allocation of special needs assistant has improved? Is the position now satisfactory or could additional work be done to build on the circular? Has an exercise been done on the approach of other jurisdictions to special needs assistants in primary schools? I refer, in particular, to jurisdictions with education systems that are similar to the Irish system. Did discussions take place on the possibility of allocating special needs assistants to preschool children with a view to reducing the requirement for further SNA allocations through the primary school network on the basis of the progress made in preschool?
I welcome the witnesses and thank Senator Moran for her work in bringing this issue before the joint committee. Before I put my questions, I apologise to the witnesses as I must leave to attend another meeting before they respond.
Senator Moran drew attention to the qualifications required to become a special needs assistant. What plans does the Department have to assist the professionalisation of the SNA role? What will be done to assist current SNAs to acquire the in-service training they need to improve their skills to a level that would allow them to be recognised as professionals, rather than as glorified childminders, as they are sometimes viewed?
When a child with special needs starts school, whether at primary or second level, a briefing session should be provided attended by the child, his or her parents and the special needs assistant. Has time been provided at the start of the school year to allow class teachers to carry out this type of briefing session to ensure everyone is on the same hymn sheet regarding the role of special needs assistants?
In the case of all children with special needs, regular meetings should take place. Classroom teachers do this by osmosis almost in that it is done on an informal basis. This process should be formalised, however, because as Senator Jim D'Arcy stated, success is when it becomes possible to withdrawn the special needs assistant to allow a child to stand alone. Are we facilitating the allocation of special needs assistants to children who no longer need them because they have settled into the system, as it were?
I have some specific questions for the representatives of IMPACT. I will not engage in the criticism we have heard of IMPACT's presentation. I have always believed that a person's role is affected by the way in which he or she is treated. How have employment conditions affected the role of special needs assistants?
We have heard that special needs assistants have assumed behavioural, therapeutical, pedagogical, teaching and administrative roles. These things are happening and in fairness to the IMPACT representatives, they should be allowed to address these issues.
We could discuss the impact of any issue - the Haddington Road agreement, for example - on the role of teachers but that is not the theme of the meeting and, therefore, not our brief. I ask members to stick to the topic.
If a matter impacts on their role, the witnesses should be allowed to address it.
Do the trade unions engage in in-service training or is an in-service training programme in place? What is the impact of fragmentation, that is, the allocation of a couple of hours' work here and a couple more hours' work elsewhere, on the role of special needs assistants? In the past, a special needs assistant was assigned to a child. To what extend is funding responsible for the shift towards allocating hours rather than a full-time role?
I apologise for not being able to wait for the replies. I will review the transcript as soon as possible. Please forgive me but I have another meeting to attend.
Mr. Robinson and Ms McCrohan's presentation refers to the lack of continuous professional development or in-service training programmes for special needs assistants and the need for a collaborative approach to the role of SNAs. It is welcome that the union is willing to participate in such a process, which is clearly the reason Mr. Robinson and Ms McCrohan are in attendance. We commonly criticise the Teachers Union of Ireland and the Irish National Teachers Organisation for their tendency to use appearances before the joint committee as an opportunity to raise issues that are not necessarily relevant to the meeting. IMPACT is not alone, therefore, in being criticised, although it clearly has a role to play in this regard. Has it received feedback from its members about their role? Several members have raised this issue.
Mr. Dessie Robinson:
We see the role of special needs assistants developing. There are three or four different types of special needs assistant. The first is where the SNA is focused solely on meeting the care needs of the child, for example, in toileting, etc. The second is where the SNA, under the teacher's instructions, keeps the child on course academically. We take into consideration some of the points made about making sure children are self-sufficient at the end of the process. That is the goal. The reason the people we represent become a special needs assistants is that they have a vocation to help children. Special needs assistants are also being asked to perform a third role where they perform, without any training, invasive procedures such as catheterisation.
Recently I carried out a survey, not the formal SurveyMonkey one but by sending an e-mail asking people if they were involved and, if so, who gave the training. Out of all the responses, the vast majority were trained by the parent to perform catheterisation, an invasive procedure, which could go wrong. I am not a medical practitioner but I understand one could puncture the bladder and that is severe. Do we have to wait for that to happen before we provide training? Our SNAs are not saying, and neither are we, that they would not perform it because it is a care need. If one is going to ask people to perform such procedures or all the other procedures, however, then one has to train them formally. The other point I would make is that they are willing. We provided sensory integration training a number of times up until this year. On a Saturday morning we could have 150 people in the Red Cow on their own time. They were there and wanted to be trained and wanted to develop. As Senator Mary Moran said, some of them are highly qualified they came into the job because of their vocation and want to develop, so there is a role for them to develop. The most important phrase I heard today came from Senator Moran who spoke about striking the balance and ensuring, at the end of the day, that the child is looked after. That is what it is about.
I was accused earlier of making a party political broadcast. I resent that remark on the basis that there is no area of my submission that does not represent the views of my members. Everything I have said today about the lack of security, fragmentation of posts and lack of training are all the views of my members. To say we are making a party political broadcast on behalf of IMPACT is not correct. IMPACT is its members. The members give us their views, we feed them back out. That is what I have done today.
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
In terms of training, perhaps my colleagues from the NCSE might assist us in this, the Department recognises that there is a challenge for training. It is a complex issue. A number of members raised the issue about, perhaps, the potential for in-service and so on. We agree entirely with our colleagues from IMPACT that SNAs are, on the whole, very willing to engage in training. We recognise that they are very open to the discussion. As has been mentioned, we recognise that many SNAs are significantly higher qualified than the minimum requirements laid down. None the less, we recognise there is a need for ongoing training. It is complex. For example, catheterisation, which is invasive, refers to a very small number of children. Obviously, the Department would not support CPD for every SNA in the State in that particular practice. It should only be available for those who are engaging in it. Similarly, Irish Sign Language is a requirement for some SNA positions and, again, it would not be appropriate to train everyone in Irish Sign Language. That is a common characteristic of the SNA scheme.
A varied group of tasks is undertaken depending on the actual care needs of the child. Clearly, the training that is required needs to be specific to the tasks being undertaken by the SNA rather than the general training made available to everyone. Part of that can be addressed through the recruitment process. One hires the right person for the job rather than have a general person. In the event that one wants somebody to do Irish Sign Language, ISL, if one can find someone who is able to do it and is willing to come in, that is fine, and maybe some ongoing training may be required. The Department is conscious of it and is open to it and we look forward to the recommendations of the report of this committee in that area.
Ms Teresa Griffin:
On training, the NCSE is very clear. Where children have specific needs the people who are supporting those children should receive appropriate training. For example, if it is a specific piece of assistive technology, it is important the SNA who helps and supports the child in its use should be trained. We in the NCSE are quite clear on that.
On some of the more specific questions, which I will not take in any particular order, on was to explain the role of the SNA. I get depressed that we are still explaining the role of the SNA some 20 years on, but it is not simply just to parents. We have just finished a round of consultation on autism. This is policy advice which we will publish shortly. It was not only parents but also teachers, principals and school management who ask about SNAs. Sometimes a teacher would say they thought the SNA was to help them in the classroom as opposed to helping a specific child. I do not know what it is but we have tried to be helpful in our information booklet for parents. We have had positive feedback on that general information booklet for parents, which is now on its third run and which we are going to bring up to date this year. The SNA scheme is a handy flyer for people to take away because it is really important we are all on board on the same thing. It is a worry. One of the reasons is because the role is so broad. It is not a specific role, but it is particular to the child and the child's needs. Therefore, one will find in one school the SNA is doing one thing and in another school an SNA is doing something else and in a third school something else again. With respect to the Department, it is very difficult to capture that in a circular. Parents are talking to each other and teachers are talking to each other and all of a sudden there is a multiplicity of roles, so we have to try to be quite clear. It is an easy to read leaflet and I hope it will help in the process.
On the issue about any research that teaching assistants are good or what is happening in other jurisdictions, again this is an issue the NCSE looked at in the preparation of its 2013 policy advice. It is also an issue we have looked at in terms of the current advice we are preparing on autism. It is fair to say that every jurisdiction we have looked at experiences difficulties in the area of, as Ms Lynch would say, the appropriate supports for children who have special educational needs. There is no one model that people would say is the correct or perfect model. They range from some jurisdictions that have absolutely no SNAs to some jurisdictions where children who have quite profound special educational needs have no teachers, and there is everything in between. It is quite difficult and the research is therefore quite difficult to interpret in that way.
When trying to consider objectively what are the right supports for children with special educational needs, we have a look at the research. In some longitudinal research published a couple of years ago in the UK it was clear that while one could make a case for teaching assistants or one could make a case for more teaching or whatever, in general and not just for children with special educational needs, the evidence is that the longer a child remains with a teaching assistant, the poorer the academic outcome. That is quite strong evidence. The other evidence, which is quite widely regarded, is the impact of the teacher and the quality of the teaching. On Senator Mary Moran's point about the teacher, people who are newly qualified, the role of the role of the teacher and so on, while that is an issue, it is the professional teacher, the quality of their teaching and how they understand how a particular child learns that is important in terms of delivering better outcomes, which is what all of us would like to drive.
If it is acceptable to the committee I will leave the questions relating to the current allocation process to the Department which I think is happy to deal with those.
Deputy Jonathan O'Brien raised a number of issues about the 3,000 who were refused applications and how many appealed and the role of the Ombudsman, who is not present.
I do not have the figures in front of me, but from memory, a couple of years ago, out of a total of 24,000 applications for resource teaching and SNA support, we had 150 appeals, and of those, the majority were for SNAs. As a result of the appeal, three or four of these received SNA support. Last year, there were approximately 100 formal appeals, but I am not aware how many went to the Ombudsman.
In regard to individual education plans, IEPs, and SNAs not being at the IEP meetings, while this would not be a formal matter for the NCSE, we maintain strongly that whoever is in a position to assist in the child's development and the development of the IEP should be at the meetings.
On transition from one system to another, we looked at this issue closely and we are doing work currently on providing advice on transition from preschool to primary level and on to post-primary level and on transition into or from a special school and on to special classes. We hope to have that work completed this year. We have spoken to parents, teachers, school management bodies and advocacy groups and much work has been done, particularly in regard to transition from primary to post-primary level. Significant work has been done on this. Using an iPad, one school filmed the entire school, filmed where the child coming into post-primary would go, where the child would sit and who the teachers would be. The parent and child were able to download that film and rehearse and reinforce it over the summer break. There is positive work being done in regard to transition. Special education and inclusion is well embedded at primary level. Good work is being done at second level, but more is required in some schools.
I am happy to answer any further questions members may wish to bring to my attention.
Ms Áine Lynch:
Our submission points out that training is important. We feel there should be basic training for all SNAs and this should not just be based on their specific role in schools. We have identified areas that should be part of training, such as understanding children's needs, communications skills and basic child protection. All SNAs should have these basic requirements before they take up an SNA role.
Much has been said about the physical care needs of children and extended training for that area. As we said in our submission, SNAs are being increasingly assigned to children who have complex behavioural needs as well. The recent 2014 circular states that part of the SNA's role covers preserving the safety of the pupil and others with whom the pupil is in contact and assisting to ensure the prevention of self-injurious or destructive behaviour. The circular states this significant role is the responsibility of the SNA. We would argue that anyone who has that role within the classroom should receive significant training to carry it out, because anyone who tries to carry out that role without receiving the significant training required may not be able to do it and children or staff could become harmed. Also, because they are not aware of what they are doing, they could make the situation worse by not having the skills to intervene effectively or early enough in the behavioural issues. We need to concentrate not only on the physical requirements in terms of additional training but also on the behavioural requirements.
In regard to why we and parents are still not clear of the role of SNAs, while I agree with Ms Griffin, the role is also unclear because of the challenges faced by schools in terms of supporting children with special educational needs. A principal in a school has two options for allocation of support for children, either the resource teacher or the SNA. In terms of getting an allocation for resource hours, the role of the resource teacher is much more clearly defined regarding assessment of how many hours will be allocated to children. The SNA is the most flexible role within the school in terms of trying to get additional resources to support children. As long as this continues to be the case, parents will fight for any resource they can get rather than the right resource.
Often, the right resource for children in schools in the need to access the curriculum are not available for the principal or the teacher to allocate. The need might be speech and language therapy, occupational therapy or behavioural therapy. However, these are not at the disposal of the school. Where there is this vacuum of the right resources, the most flexible resource is always fought for, and this is the SNA. I am not sure whether people do not understand this, but people are so desperate for a resource, that they would rather have the, as it were, not right quite fit resource than no resource at all. We are hearing that the SNA has started to fill that gap.
On transition from primary to secondary level, Ms Griffin is right about the work being done. Over the next few years, it will be interesting to see how the new education passport works with children moving from primary to secondary level. A section on this deals specifically with special educational needs and also a section for the child to give feedback on individual issues for him or her. There is also an opportunity for the parent to provide feedback. This passport has the potential to give the new school a good, rounded picture of the child coming in to it. If these reports are made in good time, as they are supposed to do, this will give the new school good information to follow up on with families that need additional resources.
A number of people asked about peer support. Peer support is already happening as children, by their nature, support their peers. This informal peer support is vital and I believe children provide it naturally. There is also an opportunity to formalise peer support by way of systems such as mentor and buddy systems. Clearly, there are roles other children within a school should not be doing in terms of care needs and toileting but there are significant areas where children can naturally support other children. If they are supported in doing that, this has benefits that reach far beyond the two individual children. It creates active citizenship, supports the children and supports society because of the type of society it breeds and the modelling that takes place in the school. Peer support is not just about individual children but the kind of school we create by having that kind of support within the school system. Peer support will not fit all the care needs but we need to see other children as part of the solution for children with additional needs.
Mr. Dessie Robinson:
I believe training should be provided to give them certain skills. Perhaps they do not need training as teaching assistants, but they should receive training in recognising the needs of the child under the direction of the teacher. I know it is easy for members to see the SNA as providing a care need, because that is the role as described on paper. However, it is completely different in the school. Many SNAs already carry out a lot of these functions. I see the need to regularise the situation and to get the balance right.
Ms Joan McCrohan:
I will not make a party political statement, but I would like to put on the record that IMPACT is recognised as a great champion in supporting the needs of children and has built its branches, membership and new educational vision on its commitment to children.
I wish to put that on the record because there was a certain amount of criticism aimed at our submission.
Special needs assistants are well placed to provide a holistic support within the classroom and, in the mainstream setting, the special needs assistant is critical to ensuring peer group acceptance and total inclusion. Children with difficulties do not naturally integrate with other children easily. It is only with some sort of adult assistance, supervision, encouragement or training that that will happen. They will not gravitate towards each other. I know this from my experience in school. Children who are different or who have difficulties and, in particular, children who do not have allocated support will be isolated, left out and excluded because they are not good at sports, for instance, and the rest of the children like to play football or sports at break time. Children with difficulties or who are different tend to be isolated unless there is an SNA who will encourage the other children to play. I was very active in that respect myself.
The role of the SNA has existed for 18 years in the mainstream setting. It was introduced in 1997 by Deputy Micheál Martin. I do not think anyone at the time anticipated how much parents of children with difficulties wanted their children to be educated in the mainstream setting and for them to be fully interactive with other children, their peers, with whom they would be playing in their communities at home. They did not want them to be segregated in special schools. Until then, if a child had any kind of a difficulty or was different in any way at all, the child was sent to a special school. We have made tremendous progress since 1997. Everyone here would acknowledge that the success has been, in the main, down to the passion and commitment of special needs assistants in supporting the children. All the training they have had to date they have undertaken on their own time and at their own expense.
There are fantastic schools and principals which work very closely with us. Mr. Dessie Robinson, my three colleagues and I, who represent special needs assistants in schools, find that when we go to a school to work out an issue, we tend to build great relationships with most of the principals. Usually the issue is down to a misunderstanding about the role of the special needs assistant. Clarification is brought and it is identified that the SNA is not a whole-school resource or an assistant to everyone who needs a bit of photocopying or laminating done but is there for a specific purpose. Special needs assistants are recruited specifically to assist the school to provide for children with assessed additional care needs. Not every child with additional needs who needs support is lucky enough to get the support. In those cases, best practice is that the SNA will provide access to the children who need it even though they have not been allocated it. There is general goodwill throughout the school and everyone is on the same playing field and on the same team.
I was one of the SNAs fortunate to get one of the 100 positions in 1997. From day one, I was involved in preparing the care plans for children, even before individual education plans were formalised, and I was always treated as part of the team. This was always considered best practice. We had multidisciplinary teams, including people from Enable Ireland who would come into the school, occupational therapists and physiotherapists. The teacher and I would work with the occupational therapist and physiotherapist. We would integrate those sessions into PE and elsewhere. We had a great awareness of the need to ensure the child was sitting properly, for example, or that the child needed a footstool to keep their posture right.
I am aware of the system in England where there is the position of teaching assistant. Ms Teresa Griffin is right. The teaching assistant is for the whole school and not specifically for children with special needs. The difference in the role of the teaching assistant is he or she can take over the class when a teacher has a course day and the children are not divided up the way they are here. The assistants have little or nothing at all to do with children with special needs. There are special needs assistants in England who are assigned to children with special needs. They have three grades: classroom assistant, special needs assistant and teaching assistant. They all have different roles and responsibilities.
It is not fair or true to say the SNA has no role to play in terms of supporting the education or teaching of a child with special educational needs. It is imperative that children with special educational needs are taught by a qualified class teacher. That is a given. Every child has a right to be taught by a qualified class teacher and we are very much advocates of that position. However, in reality, the SNA must, when necessary or appropriate, under the direction of the teacher, support that academic work and keep the child on task and let the teacher know if the child is having difficulties in order that the teacher can spend some more time on the lesson or, perhaps, take the rest of the children and keep an eye on them while they are assigned a task when the teacher is dealing one-to-one with the child.
I will conclude by reiterating that we are very grateful to Senator Moran for taking the matter to this level and for bringing about the report. We are grateful for the invitation here today to give the view of our members. It is a role about which I am passionate because I still consider myself an SNA. Although I work with IMPACT, I work closely with the schools, special needs assistants and non-teaching staff in schools. IMPACT is extremely committed to advocating and campaigning for support for children with special needs and to advocating for every child who needs support to get it.
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
That is fine. The number of SNAs has increased each year for the past number of years, essentially since the scheme was introduced by and large. Last year we announced the numbers to be allocated on 25 June. This year we have not yet been in a position to make the announcement. On behalf of the Department, I very much regret this has not been possible so far. The NCSE has provided us with the details of the number of SNAs required to meet demand from the beginning of the next school year. I can inform the committee that demand has increased this year. The Department has had a long engagement over the past while with the NCSE to do the diligence bit on those numbers and ensure it is all appropriate. It has informed the Minister of the issue and she is currently considering the matter with her Government colleagues. Until that process is concluded, I am constrained from disclosing the numbers involved but I can give the Chairman a commitment that I will immediately inform the committee when in a position to do so.
I welcome Ms Joan McCrohan's elaboration on IMPACT's position on SNAs and its vision for them. I asked a question about proper respect, value, and SNAs being considered a general dogsbody by school principals. Having said that, this debate has been useful. I would definitely go lion hunting with Mr. Dessie Robinson. I have no doubt if he had my back that I would be safe. I know his first duty is to look after his members.
For a long time, an SNA has been appointed to a school consequent on the needs of the pupil.
Within that construct a special needs assistant can perform many valuable duties within the classroom, including non-teaching duties. This would free the teacher and give him or her more time to work with the pupil with special needs. This is one of the most crucial parts of the set-up. It links to the individual education plans and everything else. It is a difficult situation. As when a child is taken out of the classroom for learning support or resource teaching, in a whole-school sense the teacher and the staff must figure out the loss as well as the gain to the pupil of that withdrawal. It is a complex situation. I have visited many schools this year, including autism units and mainstream schools. As is the case with all the members of the deputations, I imagine, I have seen how the role of the SNA has developed and the valuable work done by SNAs. We can develop on that. I am not keen to see limits being applied to the role. Flexibility is important as well.
One thing which troubles me and which I did not get to mention during my contribution relates to second level, the social aspect of the SNA attached to a young adult, how that works out and the experiences of those involved. It is a concern for parents all the time when they put their 13 year old or 14 year old into secondary school and put an adult sitting alongside them as an SNA. It is a difficulty. Perhaps the Department, Ms Griffin, Ms Lynch or IMPACT have some views on the matter. It is an emerging challenge.
I thank Ms McCrohan for the clarification on 17 or 18 years of age. It started out in primary school. Secondary school is a latecomer to the party and we do not have much experience of it. I am interested in the experience of the stakeholders and their suggestions for dealing with it. How do they give assurances to parents on how it is being dealt with?
Someone mentioned preschool. I know it is isolated but in our area in west Cork, children with special learning needs attending preschool can get SNAs through the good offices of CoAction, the body tasked with the role there. I appreciate not too many areas in the country have that rolled out at this level. It is certainly in our area.
I thank Ms McCrohan, who has brought a good deal of passion and understanding. Clearly her experience as an SNA in the system has come to the fore. I share her understanding. In her day and in my day when I was practising in the classroom as a principal and a teacher, it was a given that the SNA attended the preparation of the individual education plans, no questions asked. In fact, the SNA was seen as one of the strongest contributors. Although he was not an educationalist, he was the link and he filled in. Ms Lynch put it well when she referred to that.
I referred to a parliamentary question I tabled to the Minister recently on an issue and I would appreciate if Mr. Mulkerrins would come back to me or the committee on the matter. Will the Department consider reissuing some sort of clarification? As I understand it there is an issue given that many SNAs do not attend the preparation of IEPs. I would be concerned if that were standard practice. I have reasonable grounds to suggest that is more widespread than we might have thought. Will the Department consider reissuing a directive or some clarification on the matter to schools? Will the Department confirm whether it believes this is appropriate and whether it is willing to do the same in due course? It need not be done today.
Mr. Dessie Robinson:
Senator D'Arcy asked me to comment on the question of the dogsbody. If "dogsbody" is too strong a word, the fact of the matter is that the definition of a dogsbody is someone who does anything and everything within the school. What I meant was that an SNA is not a whole-time resource for the school to do anything and everything that anyone wants. His or her job is to look after the children. That is the point I wanted to make.
Some of the points raised are things I would wholeheartedly concur with and will be included in my report. It has given me confidence that I am going in the right direction. The information I am getting is feeding into the process. I have no wish to stray off the point, but with regard to Ms Griffin's comments, when we are looking at getting the information out, it is not a question of one size fits all. We can allocate teachers to a school and have a given pupil-teacher ratio, but when an SNA is allocated to a school, there are many different complex needs within that. That is where a personalised involvement is important. We have not mentioned them today but that is where the role of the special education needs organiser comes in. It is vital they are involved. I am not having a go at SENOs but sometimes they can be few and difficult to contact and communicate with parents. Indeed, many parents are unaware of the involvement of SENOs. That is important.
The deputation from the Department of Education and Skills made certain points. I totally agree. This goes back to the point made about getting the information out and about exactly what parents can expect with the role. I believe the SNA needs to be involved in all the IEPs.
I know Senator D'Arcy and Deputy Daly come from the primary end. Unlike some of my colleagues, I come from the secondary end of it. Even today we are having a different discussion from some years ago when we discussed the role of the SNA. I saw it myself at the beginning and, fortunately, we have moved away from the direction where the SNA's role included photocopying and making tea. Thank God we have moved away from all that and it has not even arisen at this meeting. That is a major point.
What is the Department's view of providing continuing professional development to SNAs? It needs to be included. We need to have a departmental view on a review of the entry requirements to be an SNA. I have met many SNAs and raised the point with them. Many were unaware of the level of qualifications and automatically presumed they were higher.
I have no wish to start putting a negative impact on it but one of the questions I asked in the report related to respect. One of the questions on the survey was whether SNAs believed they were respected in their job. While 52.9% of almost 3,000 replies answered "Yes", 8% said "No" and 39% said "Sometimes". This is something we should consider. There is excellent work going on, which I know from meeting those involved. The majority will say they are respected. I suppose it would be the same among my teaching colleagues present if we put a survey to them and asked them whether they believed they were responsible. Some of the comments I got back were interesting. Some said their duties included cleaning up after a child if she was sick or cleaning up after a child after lunch or whatever. Some said this was not their role. In my role as a teacher I have done that. I could have said it was not my job but when a person is in a given situation, everyone is flexible with their position. That is something that needs to come on. We need to let our SNAs know they are respected. They need to know they can come into the staffroom at the same time as everyone else and not be made have their breaks at a different time. We need to ensure they feel respected. I thank everyone for coming before the committee. It has been very good.
Peer support play different roles in primary and secondary schools. We need to ensure there is someone over those children. Often, the children who volunteer to be buddies or offer peer support can overindulge in it. For their safety, we need to be careful.
Round one last year was 5,800 but ended up as 8,600 due to infants new to the system and people transferring from primary to secondary school. Why did the 3,000 not enter in round one? Why was round one not larger?
Ms Teresa Griffin:
One can get applications. They would not necessarily be new students. For example, they could be going from primary school to special school, post-primary or special classes. They could be existing students who were looking for more. There is a multiplicity. We do not tend to do analyses of the applications. We tend to say the number.
An additional 220 SNA posts were announced in the budget and were to start this September. I take it from what the departmental officials are saying that the 220 posts will not be sufficient.
I wish to raise a final matter regarding the NCSE. Yesterday, a report in The Irish Timesindicated that the NCSE made a further request for additional SNAs to the Department last week, which was later than usual. Was there a reason for that? Will the witnesses comment on why there was a delay this year compared with other years?
Ms Teresa Griffin:
Regarding the final issue, the report in The Irish Timeswas not accurate in its entirety. We provided the information at the same time that we did last year or even a few days earlier.
Senator Moran asked about SENOs. It is important for everyone to realise that there are 80 SENOs, 180,000 parents whose children have special educational needs and 4,000 schools that are seeking supports. It is sometimes difficult to contact SENOs, but if they get calls or messages are left, they get back to parents and schools.
This year, we have done something that I announced when I last appeared before the committee. We provided parental information evenings throughout the State, which were attended by 900 parents of children newly diagnosed with special educational needs and led by our SENOs. We worked with the HSE. The response from parents was overwhelmingly positive. It is to try to get that-----
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
At the outset, Senator Moran mentioned in the context of her survey that there was a sense of SNA work not being properly credited. On behalf of the Department, I wish to take this opportunity to recognise the good and important work that is being done by SNAs. At forums like this and others where we discuss SNAs, we often end up discussing the negative aspects of the situation.
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
The bit that we need to fix, however, most of the system is good. Probably all of the SNAs are doing their best and most of them are excellent.
We propose to review the scheme shortly. There should be an ongoing, rolling review. We have only had the circular in place for a year and cannot say that there has been a significant amount of feedback on how well it is bedding in. It will take time. We did not want the circular to have such a large impact as to frighten parents, schools or SNAs, but we are trying to put a little shape on it so that everyone has a better understanding of the SNA's role.
An interesting phrase was used, namely, that reality no longer matched policy. The objective of our review will be to try to bring reality and policy closer together. The system will never be perfect, but we will continue striving to make it grow.
I get anxious, particularly when I hear that individual education plan, IEP, meetings are happening without the presence of SNAs. It is a feature of the circular that, where an SNA is provided, a care plan should be in place. I do not see how a care plan can be agreed without the SNA being involved in the discussion. To respond to Deputy Jim Daly, if further clarification is required, we will consider providing it. It may be possible to do it by informing the system of the need to implement the circular fully.
I realise that Deputy O'Brien has left, but he raised the issue of care supports. It was also raised by Senator Craughwell. It is a question of moving from individually allocated SNAs to shared resources.
Senator Craughwell asked whether that was a funding decision. Often the implication is more a question of causing a problem in the system. It is certainly not a funding decision. The Department’s view is that the historic association between child and SNA was inappropriate. It was an obvious consequence of the fact that when integration or inclusion started and there were only a few children with identified special needs in schools, it would always be the case that SNAs were identified with the children. That was an undesirable feature of the scheme and we have moved strongly to get away from that so that schools would have better control of the resource and parents would not be misguided into believing their child needed that person at his or her side the whole time. That is generally detrimental, and becomes more so as children develop and approach the time when they are transferring into post-primary school and are achieving a degree of independence. This answers a question we were asked earlier: as the children said to the NCSE, when it was researching this, the last thing they want when reaching independence is an adult, sometimes an unfamiliar one, stapled to their sides. We need to be very cautious about how we determine a care need and provide for it for a child who is developing into being a young man or woman in school.
Several people raised the issue about care needs assistants in preschools. I sit on a working group chaired by our colleagues in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs which is considering this matter, and the group hopes to report sometime in the latter part of this year. We are being assisted by colleagues on the NCSE. We hope to have clarification on that area in due course. We all recognise that early intervention is very important, but it needs to be elaborated and clarified. There is a fair bit of work being done on that.
Continuing professional development, CPD, was raised. I fully accept the need for training. There is complexity about how that should be delivered. Ongoing CPD is meaningless unless we have a structured programme for it. We make provision for boards of management to provide individualised, tailored training. There is training from the Middletown Centre for Autism, to which we give funding to provide some training for schools, parents and families to cater for children with significant autism difficulties. We will be able to deal with that in the context of our forthcoming review.
I am concerned when I hear that 8% of SNAs said in surveys that they feel they are not respected. We all need to consider their relationship within the school. That can be improved with proper clarity. When we issue clarification, we are anxious not to be over- or under-prescriptive. We need to provide guidance but we do not need to regulate the hell out of the scheme because that would be in nobody's interests. We are anxious to ensure that the scheme develops in such a way that SNAs feel valued and respected, that their role is clear and their engagement within the school is clear. That means educating teachers, principals and boards of management as well as SNAs.
Ms Áine Lynch:
In respect of SNAs not being included in the IEP meetings, parents are sometimes not included either. They should be there too.
To respond to Deputy Jim Daly’s question about post-primary, we represent parents of primary-level children, but it affects children at the higher end of primary school too. As they get older, their voice in SNA allocation in their time in the school and how their IEP should look needs to become more important. The young person’s voice is very important in deciding how SNA involvement works in order to manage the stigmatisation for older children.
This kind of conversation about the role of the SNA is very important, but it is also very important for us to suggest the conversation needs to move to the higher level of how we provide supports to children with special educational needs in school more generally. People do not understand the role of the SNA. Although a great deal of resources go into special education, as long as the system is constructed around the resource teacher, the teacher and the SNA, children still cannot access the resources they need in the sector to get their education. That discussion needs to be broadened. Speech and language, behavioural and occupational therapies need to be available to the school to support the child’s access to education, rather than being separate as they are now.
Mr. Dessie Robinson:
Some of the questions were answered indirectly, but in response to the question about JobBridge, this year we had to complain to the Department of Social Protection that JobBridge was being abused in the schools because people were being brought in under the guise of classroom assistants when the Department of Education and Skills did not recognise that role, and the schools used those people for anything and everything. Since then, JobBridge in the education sector has been reviewed and that role has ceased.
Mr. Dessie Robinson:
No. For a particular point in time we are not against it, but it needs to be reconsidered for a different point in time. This is a new world. It was good at the time.
We need SNAs to be given the respect of knowing at the end of the school year whether they have a job in September. No other profession within the educational system would allow that to happen and not be marching on the streets. For the past two years they have been left till the last minute. It is unfair and not respectful to SNAs.
Everybody agrees that training must be provided, but the budget to match that training needs to be provided too. When we sought training for SNAs, the Department said it did not give training. We have had to use the resources of IMPACT to ensure training is provided for SNAs.
The real issue for SNAs is security of tenure. If we are to develop the role we must keep the best people in place. The majority of SNAs are female. They are not doing this for pin money. They do it to make a living as well as to provide a service. They need security of tenure. When they get that, we can develop the role.
Ms Joan McCrohan:
We contacted the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools, ACCS, which has a budget for providing training for teachers who work with children with special educational needs, because there are lots of empty seats at those training sessions in the education centres every year. We asked if we could put bums on seats by including the SNAs in the training, because we wanted them to get the same training as the teachers, especially if they were to look after children with challenging behaviour, particularly children with autism, so that they would all be singing from the same hymn sheet. However, we were told this was not allowed. Some education centres did allow it, but the SNAs could not get the accreditation and claim they were there. They were like ghosts on the seats.
Ms Joan McCrohan:
Another point was that IMPACT facilitated information meetings. For two years we went around the country talking to special needs assistants about their role and the appropriate duties they should be carrying out. We always emphasised how important it was that they were not velcroed to the child, but promoted independence. The care they give pupils should be the same as they would give to their own children, otherwise they should be looking for a different job. We also emphasised that if they were working as a whole-school resource, taking on duties that should be assigned to the secretary, caretaker or cleaner, they were diluting the service they should be providing to a child with disabilities whose support was hard won from the National Council for Special Education, NCSE.
I plead with the NCSE and the Department that when they are devising policies on allocating support, they bear in mind that support is vitally important in infant stages and in formative years, particularly first year in secondary school. The support does not have to be visible but can exist in the background. If a child is not succeeding socially in infants, that child is not going to make friends and will have a very difficult time all the way up along. I have seen it happen. If the teacher is fire-fighting all the time because of a child's challenging behaviour, waiting to see if the child is going to settle down, and there is no-one to assist with settling the child and the whole class down, this can contribute to a bad outcome for the child.
In first year of second level, the special needs assistant's role is just to organise the child from a distance and make sure he or she is succeeding socially. These are the children who drop out of school and for whom mental health is a huge issue. They are experiencing a lot of change when they are just coming in to secondary school. Even if it was just for first year, I ask that there be consideration of this.
We will now conclude as we have to vacate the room. I thank everybody for a very good and informative discussion, which will help inform our report. We will be in touch with the witnesses when we have the report.