General Election Special e-bulletin - Special Education: What the Parties Propose

IMPACT General Election Guide 2016

“I Would Not Have Finished Primary School Without the Help of my SNA” – Jessica Ní Mhaoláin, M.A.

IMPACT General Election Guide 2016

The front page of today’s Irish Examiner leads with the headline ‘SNA cuts take away a child’s chance to learn’. The article recounts the story of Jessica Ní Mhaoláin, a recent graduate of UCC’s MA in Government programme. Due to a serious vision impairment Ní Mhaoláin says she “would not have finished primary school without the help of [an] SNA”. She shared her story via a social media post on Tuesday night in the hopes of underscoring “the vital need for SNA hours to be maintained, even when funding is tight”. Ní Mhaoláin says that access to an SNA puts a child with special needs “on a level playing field” with classmates.

Jessica’s post, and the subsequent media attention, has pushed SNA access centre-stage in the final days of the general election campaign. This IMPACT General Election Guide special e-bulletin outlines where the various parties stand on SNA provision.

As part of the union’s General Election Guide, IMPACT asked the parties: “What measures will your party take to improve access to services for children with special education needs?” (question 4 in the guide)

They answered: 

‘Families still face anxiety in accessing services’

Fine Gael states that they would “continue to increase expenditure in the area to meet demand”. In its manifesto, the party admits that “families still face anxiety in accessing services”. The party recognises that “it is crucial that early detection and intervention takes place so that each child can reach their full potential”.  Fine Gael promises to “examine the adequacy of current funding provision” and to “consult with stakeholders to see how best to progress sections of the EPSEN Act”.

Fine Gael Manifesto
IMPACT General Election Guide 2016

‘Money is not an obstacle to appropriate support’

Labour has a “new vision” for allocating special needs resources. The party promises to ensure that “no school faces a reduction in resources” and that “schools that are under-resourced at present are brought up to the level of support they need”. Labour promises to bring about a situation in which “money is not an obstacle to appropriate support”.

Labour promises to introduce a “free year of early childcare” for children with special education needs. The party also wants to eliminate “the need for medical diagnosis” as a criterion for accessing supports. Technology, Labour says, must be introduced and used “in an inclusive manner” in order to ensure that children with special needs benefit from it as much as their peers.

There is further detail regarding technology in the party’s manifesto, including a promise that each special needs child will be “provided with training specific to their requirements so they can fully realise their potential”. Labour is “committed to ensuring adequate numbers of SNAs and to the maintenance of full-time paid SNA positions”.

Labour Manifesto
IMPACT General Election Guide 2016

‘Addressing this government’s attack on Special Needs Assistant support’

Fianna Fáil promises “a new point of departure for education of children with special needs in Ireland”. The party is “committed to addressing this government’s attack on Special Needs Assistant support”.

Fianna Fáil states it is “committed to reinstating the Special Needs Assistants on a needs basis and to restoring resource teaching hours to 100% of the recommended hours”. This, the party says, will cost €72m per annum.

The party also promises to provide special needs children with access to “speech, occupational and physio therapies on their school site”. These therapeutic services would be provided, the party pledges, by “multi-disciplinary therapy teams on-site in primary and secondary schools”. Fianna Fáil emphasises the importance of “early interventions and ongoing continuity of care”. The party has costed their new special needs resource provision plan at €14m per year.

Fianna Fáil Manifesto
IMPACT General Election Guide 2016

‘Fine Gael and Labour have seriously damaged education in Ireland’

Sinn Féin says that the current government has “seriously damaged education in Ireland”. In particular, the government “removed supports for children with special needs so they have less time with their Special Needs Assistants”.

Sinn Féin promises to prioritise “entitlement to an Individual Education Plan with associated resources for children with special educational needs”. The party pledges to “remove the cap on the number of special needs assistants and resource teaching assistants".

Sinn Féin has budgeted to provide for a 15% increase in teaching hours for children with special needs and an additional 1,450 SNAs. The party also promises to invest in 1,000 additional SNAs for the childcare sector. In its manifesto, the party promises to increase the number of psychologists in NEPS by 10%.

Sinn Féin Manifesto
IMPACT General Election Guide 2016

‘Reversal of all Special Needs Assistant cuts that this government imposed’

The AAA – PBP promise a “reversal of all Special Needs Assistant cuts that this government imposed”. The party believes that “The National Council for Special Education has become a filter system that is restricting access to SNAs”. The AAA – PBP stress the need for “early intervention”. In its manifesto, the party also promises that SNAs will have “a maximum class contact time of 18 hours per week”. Furthermore, the party suggests that “SNA staff should gain security from a panel system that gives them employment in different schools”.

AAA Manifesto
PBP Manifesto

IMPACT General Election Guide 2016

‘Ensure sufficient resources’

The Social Democrats promise to bring about the “removal of cap” and to ensure “sufficient resources” for children with special needs. The party promises to explore options such as working with the NCSE or the NCTE in order to roll out the changes proposed in the ‘Delivery for Students with Special Education Needs’ report. The Social Democrats believe that SNA staff should have access to “continuous professional development”.

Social Democrats Manifesto
IMPACT General Election Guide 2016

‘The extension of disability into the Ombudsman’s remit’

Under ‘Special Education’ Renua Ireland’s manifesto states the following: “The extension of disability into the Ombudsman’s remit will play a key role in enforcing the often neglected rights of the disabled in Irish schools”.

Renua Ireland Manifesto
IMPACT General Election Guide 2016

Challenges for IMPACT

IMPACT deputy general secretary, Kevin Callinan, has said that “every SNA is a champion of opportunity for children with special needs”. He said SNAs are vital to help special needs pupils to “realise their full potential”. “The Special Needs Assistant service”, he continued, “has transformed the education landscape by providing a quality experience of mainstream education for children with special education needs”. It is crucial that the next government continues to increase funding to the SNA service.

In her Facebook post, Ní Mhaoláin attacked the actions of Special Education Needs Organisers and department officials for cutting SNA provision. IMPACT has always championed the SNA service and agrees that it is wrong and cruel to deprive a pupil with special education needs of the support they need. It's important, however, to stress that the fault lies with the programme of austerity that demanded these cuts be made, rather than with the public sector workers who themselves were subject to comparable measures during the economic crisis.

The improvements in SNA numbers since October 2014 (1,000 whole time equivalent posts) are welcome. Another welcome development was the recent Oireachtas Committee report on the SNA service, and its recommendation for continuing professional development for SNAs. No matter which parties form the next government, growing the service and developing the profession of the SNA remain key goals for the union.

As IMPACT president Jerry King said in a letter to IMPACT branches last week, it's important now to look beyond who will be elected into the Dáil, and consider carefully who will form the next Government, “because they will be, for the vast majority of IMPACT members, our new employer."

View the IMPACT General Election Guide HERE

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