This month marks the deadline set by Minister for Education Richard Bruton for the review led by the National Council for Special Education of the Special Needs Assistant (SNA) scheme.
The process has been shrouded in secrecy. The composition of the group is not widely known but it is chaired by a retired chief schools inspector and populated with senior department and NCSE figures. It’s said to include an SNA but we know it’s not someone Fórsa, the main representative body for SNAs, is aware of or was asked to nominate. We await developments with interest.
Key to the review’s success will be the extent to which its recommendations will improve the position of children with special education needs.
Whatever you say about the current SNA scheme, it has revolutionised access to education for thousands of children. It’s also helped to establish the rights of those children in the wider public’s consciousness.
We’ve seen attempts to question the increase in special education spending led by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It’s even been pointed out that special education now consumes a “greater share of expenditure” than higher education. Any attempt to suggest that children with special education needs are somehow responsible for the underfunding of the third level sector is absurd.
Of course, the real sub-text here is to suggest we are employing too many SNAs and resource teachers. Deeper still, there’s an insinuation that improving the rights of children with special education needs has, somehow, gotten out of hand.
So we need to be on our guard about a number of things. The first relates to changes away from diagnosis-driven access to SNA support.
Range of needs
The current system isn’t perfect, but it does guarantee that the rights of the child can be vindicated. The fact that parents with greater financial resources, and the knowledge of how to navigate the system, generally fare better is a problem.
If there is to be any consideration of a move away from this system, it must be on the basis that the range of needs that warrant support is not diminished. There also needs to be an independent, locally accessible mechanism to speedily resolve disagreements over access to support.
Another worry concerns the scope of practice of the SNA. I wrote to the minister following his remarks about UK teaching assistants last December in the Seanad. He has now clarified to me that his statement was intended “to support the care role of the SNA and to indicate that evidence from the UK suggested that changing it to a teacher assistant role, with a specific teaching role, was not a good idea.”
That is all fine and well, and not something sought by Fórsa in any case, but it seems to me that the success of the SNA scheme is based on a certain amount of flexibility in the classroom. This works well for everyone - the teacher, the student and all the other students in the class - as the presence of an SNA ensures an instant response to challenges that arise and, in truth, can often allow for them to be anticipated before they do.
Many SNAs are assigned to work with children who have been diagnosed with conditions, such as ASD, and any attempt, covert or otherwise, to remove or diminish access to additional care support for these children would be a source of grave alarm for us.
We know too that many of the children with whom SNAs work would benefit from a number of other in-school services including occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, behavioural therapy and psychology.
We would like to see the development of these services but not at the expense of existing additional care supports, including those for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties (EBD) or complex medical needs. As I’ve said elsewhere, if reduced care support was to be the outcome of the review it would be like ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’.
Qualifications and professional development
The starting point for a look at the SNA scheme could have been an assessment of the existing span of qualifications possessed by SNAs, rather than relying on the declared qualifications which we already know totally misrepresent the level of skills in the classroom.
The overwhelming majority of SNAs have qualifications well in excess of the minimum standard. We also know that the appetite among SNAs for further training and professional development is boundless. That’s one of the reasons that so many parents of a child with special needs are happy in the knowledge that they have an effective advocate in school.
No review of the SNA scheme can have credibility if it fails to address the need to achieve respect for SNAs. For this to happen they must be seen and treated as equals, not just in the school community, but in the education system as a whole. There can be no place for a continuation of the practice of insecure employment and fragmented posts with uncertain working time and income. It’s time that these issues are addressed and finally resolved.
For all of the above reasons we will not be relying on the outcome of this review.
Fórsa’s Education division will hold its Easter conference on 5th April 2018 on the theme of the future for SNAs. It will open the debate on all of these issues, and seek to further advance the planning for a professional institute. That endeavour will have, at its core, a determination to raise standards even higher, to promote training and best practice, and to safeguard services for the children who depend on SNAs.