Seanad debates

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Commencement Matters

Special Educational Needs Staffing

10:30 am

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Damien English, to the House.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, back to the House. This issue was brought to my attention by a constituent of mine who, to be fair, has engaged in further education in order to better herself, her prospects, her opportunities and her contribution to society. She finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place in terms of the existing career break structures. She is currently employed as a special needs assistant, SNA, in a school in County Clare and wishes to finalise her degree. Unfortunately, were she to do what is required in that regard she would have to take an unpaid career break and, more worryingly, would most likely have to resign her position.

I am asking for the relevant circular dealing with this kind of issue to be interpreted in a flexible manner. Each situation is unique. As a society, as a State, as a Department and as a Minister, we need to equip people to further their education. When people show good faith in doing so, exceptions can and should be made in certain circumstances. The criteria should be good faith and goodwill towards somebody demonstrates clearly that they have engaged in the education system in order to better themselves and improve their skillset. Once that is demonstrated, the Government and the Department of Education and Skills should be working with people in a positive manner to resolve problems they may find that the system, through bureaucratic necessities, has created. I want to see a positive disposition from the Department, where it will look at an individual case in its totality. Where bureaucracy is becoming an impediment to somebody bettering themselves, that bureaucracy should be looked at in a looser fashion, whereby the individual concerned would be able to finish her studies without it having a negative impact on her present employment. Who would give up a job, with the security that brings, to take a leap into the unknown? Although this person will be better qualified when she has finished her degree, she will not necessarily get a job. We all know that one requires a job to live and to play an active role in society. It is a complex and difficult situation, but I hope the Minister might be able to identify some flexibility so that this person will be able to achieve her goals.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline the position regarding the career break scheme for special needs assistants in recognised primary and post-primary schools.Special needs assistants, SNAs, are recruited specifically to assist in the care of pupils with disabilities in an educational context. They may be appointed to a special school or a mainstream school to assist school authorities in making suitable provision for a pupil or pupils with special care needs arising from a disability. The first priority is that the care needs of the children are met on an ongoing basis during the school year.

In June 2012, my Department, in conjunction with the school management bodies and the relevant trade unions, agreed a career break scheme for SNAs in recognised primary and post-primary schools, the provisions for which are contained in circular 22/2012. The scope and objective of the scheme is for employers, wherever possible, to facilitate applicants to take time off to engage in, for example, personal development; education, including teacher training; public representation; child care-dependant care; and self-employment. The scheme is not designed to cater for those seeking to take up other paid positions in schools.

Each employer, in consultation with SNA staff, shall develop and maintain a policy statement specific to the needs of the school in respect of the approval of career breaks. In drawing up this policy, the welfare and educational needs of the pupils shall take precedence over all other considerations and, while taking account of the objectives of the scheme, shall have due regard to the capacity of the school to meet its obligations to its pupils.

In the public service and Civil Service, employees are precluded from taking up employment in another Department or a body under the Government's aegis while on career break. In a similar way, an SNA on a career break is precluded from taking up employment in a school. I thank the Senator for raising the issue, but I do not have the details of the specific case. If he wants to give them to me, I will examine them to determine whether we can give any advice or direction. As he knows, the circular was agreed with the unions. I do not know whether the Senator's client is engaged with them, but the rule is the same across the board for everyone. It is a career break, not the opportunity to fill another position in the public service.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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The issue is the definition of "career break". Sometimes, people take career breaks to develop their skill sets. While I understand to a degree the logic of the current position, flexibility should be considered in certain cases. To be frank, I do not know whether the lady in question has engaged with the unions, but I will recommend that she do so. I will get my office to e-mail the details to the Minister of State's office. Perhaps he might be able to identify a resolution to the impasse for this unfortunate lady.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I will certainly examine the details to determine whether there is any advice that my Department can give. The Senator will appreciate that I do not know the case, but the logic is that one should not take a career break from the public sector to fill another position in the public sector. I am not sure if this is exactly what is at issue in the Senator's client's case, but that is how it seems.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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The scheme is right. It would not make much sense to fill a job in the public sector while on career break and holding the other job. Perhaps there is more in the story, as I am not familiar with it. By all means, I would love to see the details and go through the case. If we can give any advice or direction, we will do so.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit.