“That Dáil Éireann:
— Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) are recruited specifically to assist in the care of pupils with disabilities in an educational context;
— SNAs play a key role in supporting children who have additional care needs to attend school and participate in education;
— SNAs do not have job security, they can be let go at any time, the last SNA to be employed is the first to be let go;
— it is difficult to get onto the SNA supplementary assignment panel as an SNA is required to have a minimum of one year’s service, however, service in a substitute capacity, i.e., covering for maternity leave, sick leave, career breaks, job-sharing, etc., does not count;
— newly qualified SNAs are discriminated against when applying for vacancies if they are not on the SNA supplementary assignment panel as employers are obliged to give precedence to applicants who are members of that panel;
— parents often have to fight to receive the additional supports their children require; and
— principals and boards of management spend a significant amount of time making applications each year for SNA support for their schools; and
calls on the Government to:
— provide job security to SNAs by providing permanent contracts;
— aspire to assigning an SNA to every school on a full time basis, this will significantly reduce the time spent applying for SNAs every year, ensuring that every child who needs SNA support receives it, and provides job security to SNAs by providing permanent contracts;
— review the SNA supplementary assignment panel arrangements, as substitute work should be taken into consideration to enable all SNAs to gain entry onto the panel;
— support and provide ongoing professional development options for SNAs in order to maximise responses to a child’s professionally-assessed disability or need; and
— create a statutory forum in which the concerns and feedback of SNAs can be integrated into educational policy development.”
I am sharing time with Deputies Harty and Michael Collins. I am happy to introduce this motion on the role and the place of special needs assistants, SNAs, particularly in our primary schools but also in our post-primary schools. At present, there is massive frustration on the part of principals, boards of management, parents' councils, parents, families of children with special needs and, most important, SNAs themselves. They do excellent work and are very enthusiastic about their job. They love being assistants to children with special needs and they have a flair for it. It is a vocation for them and they should be allowed to continue with some certainty.
The uncertainty affecting the SNA system at the moment is appalling. The Minister was in Tipperary recently and announced a whole raft of new SNAs but, on the same day, St. Mary's CBS in Irishtown in Clonmel was losing SNAs. Announcements are grand and they are dandy but we deal with practicalities, real situations in classrooms and schools. Parents are being left in confusion for prolonged periods when they attempt to get a definite answer as to whether their child will receive the vital assistance of an SNA for the forthcoming academic year. It is very trying and worrying.
There is a view, promoted by the Minister, that an SNA is some sort of luxury item for a school rather than a valued, core member of staff. In my constituency families and schools contact me every week, 12 months of the year, to try to get their concerns addressed. SNAs such as Anne Lohan, Sharon Hewitt, Roisin McGrath and many others in Clonmel are experiencing enormous pressure but all they want to do is give care to the child to whom they are assigned. The children need them and the SNAs need to be able to get their hours without struggling.
I spoke to Noelette and Tom Broughan who outlined events leading to their local school having to deny access to their autistic son, Bobby, who is due to attend in September 2018. Having an autistic child is difficult enough without creating all these uncertainties throughout the summer months. Bobby's enrolment was accepted in April 2018 but today they received a call from the principal revoking the enrolment because SNA hours had been significantly reduced on Friday, 8 June, at a similar time to when the Minister was making his announcements of all the new places. This is the real impact on the ground. As a direct consequence, young Bobby is not enrolled to attend school in his local community, which his parents rightly feel is discriminatory. The decision could be reversed if extra SNA hours were granted but the process to do so is arduous.
This morning I was talking to an SNA who has years of experience in local schools but cannot get onto the supplementary amalgamation panel. That is another area that is causing confusion, distress and trauma. We have an absurd situation in which an SNA is required to have a minimum of one year's service but a year in a substitute capacity, that is, covering for maternity leave, sick leave, carer's breaks or job sharing, does not count. That is silly. What kind of a backwards way is this to approach the retention of valued SNA staff? This person told me that, this morning, she has become so frustrated with the difficulties she is having getting onto the assignment panel that she is thinking of changing career. What a loss when an experienced person like this woman is forced to change career. It is the children's loss too.
We need to address the gross deficiencies in the system if we are serious about valuing SNAs. I ask the Minister to show some seriousness in his reply tonight. In October 2017, 8,000 SNAs who were members of the IMPACT trade union voted in favour of industrial action. Do we want a repeat of that scenario? That is where we are heading if the urgent changes we are calling for do not happen.
It is in light of these difficulties that the motion by the Rural Independent Group also calls on the Government to provide some semblance of job security to SNAs by providing permanent contracts, and to aspire to assigning an SNA to every school on a full-time basis. I know the answer the Minister will give me to that but it is something we should aspire to. This will significantly reduce the time spent applying for SNAs every year and ensure that every child who needs SNA support receives it. Providing permanent contracts to SNAs will also provide some job security.
These suggestions are not rocket science. They could be implemented without any major reviews. We call on the Minister to review the SNA supplementary assignment panel arrangements, and substitute works should be taken into consideration to enable all SNAs to gain entry onto the panel. I also call on the Minister to support and provide ongoing professional development options for SNAs to maximise responses to a child's professionally assessed disability or need. We want all teaching members of our schools to be as skilled as possible. This request, if accepted, will facilitate that.
The Rural Independent Group also calls on the Minister and the Department to create a statutory forum in which the concerns and feedback of SNAs can be integrated into education policy development. It is not a big ask. If we are serious about listening to the concerns of SNAs, such a forum needs to be established.