Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh – Priority Questions

Special Educational Needs

9:30 am

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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63. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if she will establish an expert review group to examine the minimum qualifications of special need assistants; if recommendations will be issued in relation to same; if she will delay contract negotiations until this review has taken place; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23693/22]

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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We spoke earlier about SNAs and the respect shown to them. One of the key demands they are making now relates to respect and their qualification criteria. The request is not big or excessive. It is that there would be an independent review to examine the minimum essential qualifications of SNAs. Will the Minister of State commit to such a review and the implementation of its recommendations?

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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In 2018, the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, published a comprehensive review of the special needs assistant scheme. It advised that there should be adequate and comprehensive training for SNAs. I mentioned this earlier to Deputy Ó Ríordáin. The first SNA course was established in UCD and five different modules were offered over ten months. Some 3,500 people have already availed of the programme.

The review made a number of recommendations regarding SNAs, including in respect of their training needs.  In this regard, the NCSE recommended that a new national training programme at level 5 of the national qualifications framework be developed for existing SNAs who do not have the requisite level of training and for new SNAs on appointment.  That is what we did. The programme is fully funded by the Department and was delivered at no cost to SNAs. As it is the first programme, it is appropriate to take time to review the outcomes that will inform any future approach to ongoing training and professional development of SNAs. That will include accreditation.

Raising the minimum qualification for appointment as a special needs assistant has been raised by the Fórsa trade union and the matter has been referred to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC.  The Department is engaging in that process.

The Department does not believe that the existing minimum qualification has in any way impacted on the calibre of appointments. People with experience or higher qualifications than the minimum are often the successful candidate in competitions held by schools. That said, the Department is open to reviewing its position. It has also agreed to review the SNA contract. It was agreed as part of the Building Momentum national pay agreement. Once the review of the SNA contract has been carried out and implemented, we can look at everything else.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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The short version of the Minister of State's answer is that the Department will look at this matter in a few years. I am trying to imagine an alternative discussion. Imagine the UCD course did not exist. We might figure out exactly what we are asking SNAs to do before we design a course. The course is very beneficial. There were difficulties with accreditation and we had many debates about that but that is not fundamentally the issue. The existence of the course is all very well but the place to start should have been the criteria. I fully agree that there has been no impact in the quality but some of this is about special needs assistants' sense of their role and its future. As we continue to expand the number of SNAs, we need to ask what shape that role will take. To try to include this issue with public sector pay talks just rolls it on much further and puts the cart before the course. We need an independent review in advance of that to inform those talks.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I appreciate that this is a matter the Deputy has raised with me previously and we have discussed it on other occasions. It is important to stress that the review process for the SNA contract will begin in the next two weeks. That is my understanding. That will be helpful for progress. The Department has agreed to review the contract as part of Building Momentum. It is of the view that the forthcoming review should be carried out and implemented before the minimum qualifications for SNAs are discussed at the WRC. The fact the contract review will take place in the next two weeks indicates progress. It is important that SNAs feel they are valued and respected. Their role is integral to the progress of children with additional needs in schools.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Again, this is pushing the issue down the road for a few years. Let us play this forward. The Department carries out the review and there are public sector pay talks, followed, I presume, by an agreement. I then come back and raise the question of holding an independent review in, say, a year and I am told there was a review of the contract and it is the way it is. The public sector pay deal lasts for four or five years and at the end of that we will have a discussion around criteria. The contract was agreed, however, on an agreed definition of what an SNA did on the contract that was in place at the time. As such, as I see it, the Minister of State is effectively tying SNAs into the current criteria for the next five years if she does not do this now. The current criteria are decades old and do not reflect the essential role SNAs play, the complications involved or the expertise required for the role. We need to address those issues now. The Department is putting this on the long finger and could do so for years. The pay talks should go hand in hand with a review of the criteria. The review should not be put back.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I do not accept that the Department is putting this matter on the long finger. As I said, while the training might be slightly dismissed-----

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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It is not dismissed. Can I correct that?

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I did not say it has been dismissed by the Deputy necessarily but that it can be slightly dismissed. The training is very important for SNAs. It is important that we look at the outcomes and findings to enable us to inform the review which, as I have said, will take place in a couple of weeks. The Deputy says he would like it to be done now. There are lots of things we would like to have done yesterday but it is not always possible. When we need to get evidence and feedback and talk to everyone involved, there are processes in place for doing so, and for very good reason. It is to ensure the matter is looked at fairly and in a way that serves the best interests of the SNAs and, ultimately, the children with additional needs who will avail of their expertise.