Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Minister for being here to discuss the issue of the bank of 72 hours which, should work be available, special needs assistants, SNAs, can be called upon to do from time to time. Constituents in my home town of Carlow have contacted me. They are members of a union which is in the process of pursuing a claim with the Department of Education to remove these hours on the basis of their widespread abuse. Issues have arisen with regard to the manner of scheduling their use and the tasks or duties that SNAs are requested to do by employers, which can include gardening, cleaning toilets, directing traffic, building maintenance, cleaning windows and floors, administration or clerical work that would normally be completed by a school secretary. The list of possible duties is non-exhaustive and there are many tasks set which SNAs simply should not be doing. The union has sought the pausing of these hours during Covid-19 on health and safety grounds, stating that SNAs should not be required to be in the workplace for any longer than is absolutely necessary for the provision of education to the children in their care. The union recommends that SNAs should not be required to work the 72 hours now to reduce the risk of infection and to ensure their own safety, that of their families and that of the children in their care.
Are the 72 hours compulsory and must they be worked? The most recent circular in this regard does not state that the hours are compulsory. Instead, it sets out in very clear terms how they must be used and the duties appropriate to same. Are there any plans to pause these hours for health and safety reasons, given the current unique and difficult circumstances?
I raised this issue with the Minister yesterday at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. At the outset I must state that the Department's treatment of SNAs has been appalling over the most recent period in terms of the lack of respect shown to them. I refer to the redeployment debacle, the issues around face coverings and then, when there is an ongoing discussion between the Department and the Fórsa trade union over the issue of these 72 hours, with the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, a letter arrived last week detailing issues referred to in Circular 0071/2011. At the end of that letter, the Department says that disciplinary procedures are available to employers under the same circular in the event of the failure of an SNA to perform a contractual obligation.
I am blue in the face listening to political representatives saying every day of the week that teachers are heroes, SNAs are heroes and every front-line worker is a hero. At the same time the Department issues a threatening letter regarding the 72 hours that it feels SNAs should be doing outside of their ordinary working day. We are in the middle of a pandemic and the Department knows that these 72 hours are controversial. We know that it is a contractual requirement for SNAs to fulfil these 72 hours but it is understandable that the trade union would suggest that these 72 hours are not required in a level 4 or level 5 scenario because being in a school or workplace setting is not safe for those workers. Into that mix, the Department predictably makes a bags of its communication to patron bodies and individual school principals.
This letter needs to be withdrawn and the Department needs to apologise for it. The Minister must state quite categorically in this Chamber that no SNA is required to do any hours outside of contact work with vulnerable students during a restrictive lockdown such as level 4 or level 5.
At the outset, I want to acknowledge the hugely significant and important role played by special needs assistants in the education sector. They are an invaluable resource within our schools.
In reference to the points made by the Deputies, I acknowledge that a letter issued from my Department. It was sent out in response to the confusion that had arisen as a result of a communication issued by Fórsa to schools stating that there was no liability for SNAs to complete the 72 hours of non-contact hours to which the Deputies referred. It was important that my Department issued a clarification because that was what was being requested on foot of the previous correspondence. The letter reminded schools of the provisions relating to the 72 hours requirement for SNAs. That requirement has been in place since 2005 and forms part of an SNA's contract of employment, which was agreed with unions. The letter did not, in any shape or form, change the terms and conditions of SNAs or amend previous agreements.
Under the terms of the standard employment contract agreed in 2005, SNAs were required to be available for a number of days at the start and finish of each school term, not exceeding 12 days in total. Under the Croke Park agreement, it was agreed to convert the previous requirement of SNAs to be available for 12 days outside of the school year to a requirement of 72 hours, applying pro ratafor part-time SNAs. It was agreed by all parties at the time that the 72 hours would be used by schools as an additional bank of hours to be utilised and delivered outside of normal school opening hours and-or the normal school year. These arrangements were notified to schools in 2011, in Department Circular 0071/2011. Both the original 2005 agreement and the Croke Park provisions were negotiated and agreed nationally between management and trade unions. No additional hours were required of SNAs under the 2011 agreement.
Some recent commentary has referred to the 72 hours as being "unpaid". In fact, remuneration for the 12 days or 72 hours is included as part of the normal salary paid to an SNA under the terms of the 2005 agreed contract. As part of the 2011 agreement on reconfiguration, it was agreed that the scheduling of the hours is at the discretion of school management. Schools were informed that they should ensure that accurate records in this regard are kept. Fórsa, the trade union which represents SNAs, has formally sought abolition of the contractual requirement for the 72 hours through industrial relations channels. In addition, the union has formally sought that the 72 hours be frozen and that employers do not request their completion for the duration of the Covid pandemic. As I indicated, some confusion arose as a consequence of the communications issued by Fórsa to schools. This led schools and management bodies to ask the Department to clarify the position, which it did. During the course of discussions on the former claim, all parties were notified that the Department intended to issue a letter to school management bodies to remind schools of the provisions relating to the 72 hours.
The agreed uses of the 72 hours include for special educational needs pupil-centred activity such as assistance with care planning, learning resource administration such as preparing class rooms and materials, class and school planning and development, assistance with special examination centres for the State examinations, and training. The duties listed in Circular 0071/2011 form part of the normal range of SNA duties and are, therefore, liable to be performed at any time during normal working hours, including during the 72 hours. The 72 hours allow for very important support work, such as assistance with care planning, learning resource administration and training, to be carried out without reducing SNAs' time with the pupils in their care. Accordingly, the suspension of the requirement to complete the 72 hours would have a direct negative impact on pupils with special educational needs as it would impede on normal class time.
Fórsa has claimed that SNAs are being asked to carry out duties inappropriate to the grade as part of the 72 hours, as referred to by the Deputies. The Department's recent letter reminded schools of the agreed list of uses for the 72 hours under Circular 0071/2011 and stated that the grievance procedures should be used where allegations of inappropriate use arise. Neither I nor my Department would support uses outside of those listed in the circular.
I thank the Minister for her reply. We are living in unprecedented times. I know from her work in education how much the Minister values SNAs and teachers, as we all do. It is important to acknowledge that. However, it remains my view that the 72 hours should be frozen. Given the situation we are in and the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on particular families and children, who are among the most vulnerable in our society, we must do our best for those families. I again thank the Minister for her reply.
The Minister made reference to agreements made in 2005 and a circular issued in 2011. We were not in the middle of a pandemic in 2005 or 2011. There is no recognition from her Department that things have radically changed and that schools would not be open if it were not for special needs assistants. There must be some accommodation by the Department of the need for flexibility at this time. I have said before that if one is not a teacher or a building, the Department does not know what to do with one. There is an incredible inability to be in any way flexible. I will put my question to the Minister again. Does she expect SNAs to go into their workplace outside of contact hours and complete the 72 hours? Any reasonable and rational person would suggest that during periods of level 4 and 5 restrictions, which are considered to be very at-risk scenarios for everyone, this is an unreasonable expectation of SNAs.
I reiterate that the 72 hours in question allow hugely important support work, such as assistance with care planning, learning resource administration and training, to be carried out without reducing SNAs' time with pupils in need of their care. It is vital that the maximum time is availed of by the students in needs of SNA assistance.
The recent letter issued by my Department came on foot of discussions between parties, as I outlined. I restate that the letter did not, in any shape or form, alter the terms and conditions of SNAs. It was simply a reminder to schools regarding the management, communication and recording of the 72 hours which are part of the SNA contract. It was an aid to ensure schools could plan effectively for the optimum use of those hours to support the care needs of pupils. Circular 0071/2011 is very clear as to the appropriate uses for the 72 hours. As I said, grievance procedures are available to SNAs to report cases of alleged misuse.
To reiterate, neither I nor my Department would support anything outside of the agreed format set out in Circular 0071/2011. I am aware that Fórsa has sought the abolition of the 72 hours requirement and is pursuing it through the normal industrial relations channels. I do not intend to comment further on that claim at this juncture as it would not be appropriate to do so.