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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 26 Jun 2018

Vol. 970 No. 7

Special Needs Assistants: Motion

I move:

“That Dáil Éireann:

recognises that:

— 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.

I thank Mairead McGrath for helping us put this motion together. My colleagues and I in the Rural Independent Group have called on the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, to acknowledge a lack of job security for special needs assistants and to look at the obstacles preventing the full participation of special needs assistants in schools.

We have to ask if our special needs assistants are being treated by the Department as optional extras, instead of being seen as vital members of the school teaching staff. We have heard many promises from the Government that it will increase the number of SNAs but where has it delivered in facilitating the special needs assistants as permanent members of staff in our schools? In a recent debate on schools, where there were up to 140 amendments to a Bill, we called for a vote, not in any way to indicate what way we were going to vote. A Deputy to my far right was playing with her Twitter account and wrote misleading comments about Deputies Mattie McGrath, Michael Healy-Rae and myself to the effect that we had called for a vote against special needs. It was absolutely shameful carry on.

Shame on that Deputy. The comments were shameful as neither I nor the other two Deputies mentioned voted against any special needs provision.

All I wanted was for the Deputy, and her fellow Deputies, to come here and to debate such a very important issue that was going through the Dáil without question.

Deputy Collins-----

I continually-----

That is factually incorrect. They called a vote and they were embarrassed because they did not know what they were calling a vote on.

Deputy Funchion cannot tell us what we were going to do.


Deputy Funchion is misleading again.

It is a point of order.

It is a point of information and not a point of order. I call Deputy Collins.

It was factually-----

It is a point of misinformation.


Deputy Funchion was continuously on Twitter - she should stop playing with phones if she does not know how to use them.


Where is Sinn Féin again tonight? Only three of its Deputies are here on such an important issue.


I am continuously meeting with people in my own constituency-----

Deputy Michael Collins and Deputy Funchion are to take their seats.

They are embarrassed. They had no idea what they were voting on.

How dare the Deputy say that.

They are embarrassed.

Deputy Funchion knows the rules. The two of us cannot be standing at the one time.

It is factually incorrect.

She is not being heard.

I am continually meeting-----

The two of us will not be standing at the one time.

It is not me as a Deputy, it is me as Leas-Cheann Comhairle. If it is factual, then it has to be accepted.

It is not factual.

It is on the record.

Hold on Deputy. If it is not on the record, I am sure Deputy Funchion will clarify it at a later stage. I would ask-----

It was Wednesday, 30 May, that was when the vote was called.

We know it well, sure we were here. The were more of us here than there were Sinn Féin Deputies.

I call Deputy Collins.

I am continuously meeting with people in my own constituency area who come to me pleading for help as they are afraid they will not get a special needs assistant for their child. It is a disgrace that any parent has to go through this stress to provide an adequate education for his or her child. We will not stand for it on this side. Others may, but we will not. I have had many school principals and boards of management approaching me to relay to me the amount of time they have to spend each year making applications for special needs assistants support for their schools.

These school principals and boards of management are already under serious time pressures and this is only adding to the problem. The application process for special needs assistants needs to be reviewed urgently. It is a big obstacle preventing the full participation of special needs assistants in schools. The Rural Independent Group and I are calling on the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, and the Government to provide job security to special needs assistants by providing permanent employment contracts. At the moment, if a special needs assistant is in a substitute capacity, that is, covering for maternity leave, sick leave, a career break, job sharing, etc., this does not count toward obtaining the requisite one year of service that allows a special needs assistant to become a member of the supplementary panel.

We call for a review of the special needs assistant supplementary assignment panel arrangements. Substitute work should be taken into consideration to enable all special needs assistants to gain entry to the panel. We also need to give certainty to parents. No parent should have to undergo the stress and worry around whether he or she will be assigned a special needs assistant for his or her child. We need change and I honestly hope that the Minister will seriously take on board our suggestions and will move to adopt policies to address the deficit we have identified in the SNA system. We will not be quietened or allow misleading comments about our contribution to this issue and other issues in respect of the same matter. I work on the board of management of a school and I work tirelessly to make sure we can address an issue like this going forward. I am delighted that we are bringing forward this motion tonight.

This motion seeks to draw attention to a group of workers who have become a vital cog in our education system. As definitions of educational need evolve so too does the range of services that we need to provide a holistic approach to developing the child. I refer, especially, to developing and caring for children with disabilities or other special needs. This means other skills are needed to work in co-operation with the core activities of teaching. In the past, when we referred to the staff of a school, we generally meant teachers. This view is to ignore other workers who contribute to the essential smooth running of our modern school system and, of course, this includes special needs assistants.

Special needs assistants are allocated to schools to work with children who have specific care needs. They provide non-teaching care support but, inevitably, this involves them in the teaching process as well. SNAs support pupils who have care needs resulting from a disability, an educational disability, a behavioural difficulty or significant medical need. This might include a significant impairment of physical or sensory function or where the child's behaviour makes him or her a danger to themselves or other pupils. A pupil's need could range from needing an assistant for a few hours a week to needing a full-time care assistant.

SNAs may work with more than one child and in more than one school and they may work part time or full time. Most special needs assistants tend to be needed throughout the working day, which results in working non-stop from start to finish. This intensity of work needs to be recognised. This motion draws attention to what we might call a parallel universe that exists in many schools. Special needs assistants do not have the standards of employment enjoyed by their teacher colleagues and many of them have very poor terms and conditions of employment.

SNAs thus require security of tenure in their jobs and to have guaranteed work in one location or within a reasonable local area. They also need to be a given a service day, or days, to attend courses and to upskill their expertise in order to deliver to their maximum capacity. SNAs may need to have expertise in autism, dyslexia, spina bifida, scoliosis or a myriad of other conditions. Almost 35,000 students with additional care needs are supported by more than 14,000 special care need assistants in schools across the country each day. This motion - which focuses on SNAs - points out that they do not have job security. They can be let go at any time and the last SNA employed is usually the first to be let go. This is in spite of the extraordinary work they do in assisting with the care of pupils with disabilities in the educational context. I refer also to the role they play in supporting children who have additional care needs to attend school and participate fully in school life.

I welcome the announcement in May of the 1,000 extra special needs assistants being allocated to schools in the autumn to help meet the needs of vulnerable students. The Minister has said that this means that every child who needs SNA support will receive it. This is a laudable objective. It is equally important that SNAs are properly paid, have decent contracts and good conditions. If the Minister delivers on his commitment, 15,000 SNAs will be working in our schools by the end of this year, which is a 42% increase on 2011. That sounds impressive but in reality we are playing catch up following our austerity years.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has proposed broadening the role of SNAs, which is now limited to care needs. I understand it is proposed that SNAs assist with the delivery of speech and language and occupational therapy. This is to be welcomed. This means that the qualifications required to become an SNA must rise and existing staff would have to receive additional training. There is also a plan that SNAs be renamed special inclusion assistants to reflect their focus on developing students' independence. I also propose that an alternative would be school class inclusion assistants to give that educational component to it.

These proposals have to be generally welcomed. Change, however, needs to be implemented carefully and in consultation with other stakeholders. There are subtle differences between primary and secondary special needs assistants and these need to be recognised in their job descriptions and skill sets. In the past, the overlapping of the role of SNAs with areas teachers felt were within their remit gave rise to difficulties and these need to be sorted out. One of the proposals from the National Council for Special Education is to provide access to a greater range of supports and making expertise available in regional teams to support schools. I hope these teams are designed to include special needs assistants in addition to school management and teachers.

If we take a small rural school for example, it might have just one or two pupils requiring the services of a special needs assistant. It can happen that the special needs assistant might have no further work when that child leaves to go to secondary school or for many other reasons. On the other hand, if SNAs are part of the permanent local or regional team, then they can be allocated to schools according to need. It gives them security of tenure and it seems to be a sensible way to make the best use of resources.

The Minister, Deputy Bruton, has said that the Department of Education and Skills will begin to develop proposals to implement the recommendations of the comprehensive review of the special needs assistants scheme. He added, though, that it would take a number of years to implement and this proposed delay worries me. Why is it that any useful proposal has to take an eternity before it is implemented?

I urge the Minister to proceed with that review as quickly as possible.

The current spending on special needs assistants, SNAs, is €525 million. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, estimates that the changes proposed would cost an additional €40 million per year. The proposed changes should be phased in over a period of time. Inevitably, improving the scheme will cost money, but it will be money well spent. Investment in special education saves us money in the long term. Research shows that early intervention with appropriate supports results in dramatically improved educational outcomes for children with special needs.

It is hard to do justice to this debate in only ten minutes. I welcome the debate, and wish to indicate that I will not oppose either the Fianna Fáil amendment or the originating proposal.

We have developed a very important service. Its aim has been to ensure that children with special educational needs fulfil their potential. We are now investing €1.8 billion in the support of children with special educational needs. The amount of investment has grown by 43% through the hard years since 2011. We have consistently expanded provision in this area, even through the most difficult times. This is not an optional extra in any sense, far from it. This is one area that has been exempted from cuts throughout successive Governments during the period of very real difficulty. Indeed, there has been an increase in support for children with special needs.

Compared with 2011, an additional 12,400 children now avail of the support of SNAs, an increase of 55%. The support those children receive is very important; it allows them to continue in education. I am in the Dáil long enough to remember a time when the Department of Education would fight court cases to deny children the benefits of an education of the sort we are now investing in so substantially. It represents a major improvement in our attitude and our values towards children with special needs.

It is important to remember that every child with a diagnosis and an identified need gets an SNA service. We are very conscious that there are long waiting lists for necessary services in many areas. Children are forced to wait and there is long duration between the identification of a need and being seen by a professional. That is not the case for SNAs. Furthermore, the decision to allocate an SNA to a child is decided upon by an independent body, the NCSE. There is also an independent appeals process, which has been underwritten by the Government. In my time as Minister for Education and Skills, we have delivered 1,000 additional SNAs each year to ensure we are meeting this growing need.

This year we have responded to one of the criticisms mentioned by Deputy Mattie McGrath, which was that there was an uncertainty as to whether SNAs would arrive at a school. The reason for that was that under the old procedure SNAs were not budgeted for in the Estimates. The NCSE would identify how many SNAs were required, but the Minister for Education had to go to the Minister for Finance and the Government to get a specific provision during the course of the year. For the first time ever, this has been built into the Estimates. Last year I made provision for 1,095 additional SNAs, and I was able to provide schools with individual allocations before the end of May. Applications are made in March, and the decisions are made and the schools informed in May. In addition, if during the course of the first term additional need is identified, we make an additional allocation in January.

We regard this as an extremely important area, but despite the substantial investment already made, we believe we can do better. That is the backdrop to the NCSE, at my request, carrying out an investigation into how this service can be improved. The recommendations made by the NCSE are worth considering. Deputy Harty has studied them, and I believe the recommendations made are really exciting. The proposals are for changes which are similar to the changes we made to the resource teaching model where, instead of requiring a diagnosis to be made, with provision following only after a diagnosis and the delay that becomes inevitable due to the need to find a psychologist to make a diagnosis, we are now proposing to front-load the allocation of SNAs to the school. This will ensure that, before a child arrives, a profile of the school has been created and the child can expect to get access to an SNA without necessarily having to produce a diagnosis ahead of time. That change, if implemented, will be a great relief to parents. It will constitute a shift from the current model and it will deal with many of the frustrations. It will also remove much of the administrative hassle some Deputies referred to, where school principals are having to submit forms, wait for applications and deal with large amounts of paperwork. If we go along with these proposals, which I believe are very solid, the allocation will be front-loaded into the school.

As a result of the changes proposed, there will also be more job security for special needs assistants. The Deputies have rightly pointed out that there is uncertainty about the position of an SNA because an SNA has traditionally been allocated to an individual child. When the child leaves the school, and if the school no longer has children with the profile of need, it loses the SNA because he or she is linked to the identified need. The SNA has a contract, but one which is linked to an identified need. Of course, a redundancy payment is made if the contract is terminated. In 2013, under the Haddington Road agreement, a supplementary panel was introduced, meaning that if an SNA lost a post in one school, he or she could go onto a panel and could then get first option for posts elsewhere. This was a significant improvement, which has dramatically reduced the number of SNAs who become redundant and cease to continue. High numbers of SNAs now continue on, even though their posts may change. If we move to the new model, it will provide far more job security because SNAs will be front-loaded into the school and will not be so closely linked to individual pupils. That will improve the system.

The other major proposal from the NCSE is that resources would be ring-fenced in areas of therapy that could dramatically broaden the scope of what can happen in a school. We have already piloted this idea for speech and language and occupational therapy in 75 schools and 75 pre-schools. At the moment, a child might meet a therapist once in nine or ten weeks and between visits nothing happens. In future, these schools will have the capacity, built into the school by speech and language therapists, to continue working between those episodes. Both the teacher and the SNA would continue to support the speech and language capability of the child between visits to the therapist. We believe this will have a much higher impact for our investment in speech and language therapy and a much better outcome for children. We have to test this idea in real life, so the pilot scheme has been set up involving 75 schools and 75 preschools in community health organisation, CHO, 7 of the HSE, in Wicklow, Kildare and parts of west Dublin. The idea is being tested.

We have to implement these proposals carefully. We learned from the resource teaching model, which was piloted in 47 schools. There was a proof of concept before we moved to provide the programme nationwide. That is very important. Deputy Harty has asked why we cannot act more quickly. It is very important that we build confidence in the model and demonstrate that it can work in order that we can go back to Government to seek support for such an approach.

We have to show what it will cost and what impacts it will deliver, get approval for a pilot and then move to implement it on a broader basis. I am convinced that this will result in a significant improvement in the way we do this. What the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is saying does not just apply to speech and language and occupational therapy, but also to many areas in which children attending school need specialist support that cannot be delivered within the school. We will have regional teams that will provide such support and they will work to build the capacity of schools to handle more complex cases.

This is a significant breakthrough. In regard to ensuring that special needs assistants, SNAs, are properly treated, under the Haddington Road agreement, we carry out an annual review of the supplementary panel system. I meet the trade unions regularly and I attend the Fórsa annual trade union conference to listen to the affected staff. We also engage in consultations. For example, when the NCSE consulted the representatives of SNAs there was an SNA on the team. Special needs assistants are invaluable education stakeholders and we need to support them.

I welcome this debate because it contributes to work that we, as Members of the Oireachtas, will have to do over the coming years to build an even stronger model to support children with special needs. I am glad there is a fair degree of consensus in the House about the direction of travel.

I move amendment No. 1:

To insert the following after “educational policy development”:

"— set out how the recommendations of the Comprehensive Review of the Special Needs Assistant Scheme, recently published by the National Council for Special Education, are to be implemented."

I welcome the Rural Independent Group's motion, which I support in its entirety. For the information of Members, the amendment simply asks the Minister to set out the steps he intends to take to implement what the NCSE has recommended regarding special needs assistants. I will share time with several colleagues.

The Minister looked back over the period of the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government with rose-tinted glasses. He maintained there were no cutbacks to SNAs during that Government. He has clearly forgotten the major protests against cuts to SNAs and resource teaching hours in 2013 and the fact that, as early as September 2011, my party leader raised this issue on Leaders' Questions. The record of the Fianna Fáil Party and my leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, on SNAs is second to none. If it were not for Deputy Micheál Martin, we would not have the system of SNAs that we have in place now. Deputy Martin introduced the automatic entitlement to special support under the Education Act 1998. The number of SNAs increased under that policy.

Why do we have SNAs and what is the reason for the increase in their number? It is to ensure that all children can have access to their local school and an education. In many cases, they can only access that right to an education through the support and assistance of SNAs.

I thank the Rural Independent Group for introducing the motion, which Fianna Fáil is delighted to support. It provides a timely opportunity to discuss this issue. At some point the Minister will need to flesh out in more detail what he proposes to do about SNAs on foot of the review. Like the Minister, I attended the Fórsa trade union conference where I was delighted to meet SNAs, as we all do on a regular basis as part of our roles as Members of Dáil Éireann. Clearly there are major issues, specifically labour issues and issues of respect. The word that hit me most as I left the conference was "respect". Many special needs assistants feel they are not respected, sometimes by other staff in schools but also by the Government's policy of applying unequal pay scales for younger SNAs. The general feeling at the conference was one of a lack of respect.

The report of the National Council for Special Education is a very good document. We do not agree with everything in the report, some of which needs to be further examined. However, one of the points that comes through is that SNAs are not always doing the job the State employs them to do, that is, helping and supporting children with special needs. The NCSE report gives a number of examples of other roles that SNAs are carrying out, including teaching, which they are not qualified to do. In some cases, this reflects the lack of teachers. SNAs also tend to be the people who do the odd jobs around the school or the jobs that others do not want to do. That has to stop. SNAs need to be able to do the job we expect of them and which they view as their role, namely, the role set out in the Education Act 1998 enacted by this House. SNAs want to be trained to the highest possible standards for that role, a point which is mentioned in the motion. That is something that we support and aspire to, and to which the NCSE also aspires.

The Minister says he needs time to consider the NCSE's report and to try to implement it. However, he has been a little slow off the mark, because some aspects of the report are deemed urgent by the NCSE. One of these concerns complex medical needs. The report states that the NCSE wrote to the Minister in early 2017 to highlight a major crisis regarding complex medical needs and noting that nursing support should be provided to schools, SNAs and teachers to address those needs. The report is quite stark on this point, stating that if something is not done, there will be a crisis in schools. This issue needs to be addressed urgently. The report notes that the Minister responded by establishing a working group, but here we are, about a year and a half after the NCSE warned of a crisis in schools if nursing support was not provided, and the Minister has still not made an announcement on the provision of nursing support in schools. This is a key urgent recommendation of the NCSE review. I pay tribute to the National Council for Special Education. I would like the Minister to set out exactly when he expects this nursing support, which is deemed so urgent, to be provided. If a medical emergency occurs, and emergencies could well be taking place under the radar in schools, there is no doubt that the absence of nursing support in schools as a result of the failure of the Minister to make a decision on this matter could lead to him and his Department being found liable. They have certainly been warned by official advisers that such support is urgently needed. I urge the Minister to take a proactive approach and give schools and SNAs the support they need to deal with complex medical needs. SNAs are not qualified to administer medications or apply dressings that may be necessary for certain students and they need support.

We support the motion. We support SNAs who do a wonderful job and we need to ensure they can continue to do so. They must be kept in post, given permanent jobs and careers and trained properly to do their jobs. Fundamentally, as the comprehensive review states, we need to ensure that the right of children to access education in their local school is fulfilled. Primary education is a constitutional right, and the SNAs are very much part of the fulfilment and execution of that constitutional right.

Having worked as a special needs assistant for a few years, I know at first-hand how hard SNAs work and the major benefits they provide in the education system. They and the families of the students they assist deserve better treatment than they are currently receiving. As Fianna Fáil's spokesperson on disability, I work closely with SNAs and the families of the students they assist. Right across my constituency of Cork South-West, families are looking for SNAs for their children. Others are looking for extra hours, and some are still waiting for assessments to see if they can receive the help of an SNA. I thank the Rural Independent Group for introducing the motion. I am a little surprised that greater mention was not made of the comprehensive review of the special needs assistance scheme.

As someone with a personal interest in this area, it is important to me that children with special needs and their assistants are treated fairly. It is important that the policy put in place by Fianna Fáil in 1998 is made available without hesitation to every child with special needs and, more important, that schools are confident in the system. I pay tribute to my party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, for the significant contribution he made to special education when he was Minister for Education and Science. Without him, there would be no special needs assistants and the House would not be discussing them this evening.

It is imperative that the Minister has the power to compel a school to make additional classes available where needed. However, it is also imperative that the needs of the child are recognised as being of paramount importance.

The NCSE proposals for a greater range of supports to be offered via special needs assistants make absolute sense.

They have a unique relationship with the child and it stands to reason that their intervention would benefit the child. However, additional training is needed to equip the SNAs in this regard. I plead with the Minister to treat our SNAs with more respect and give them the training they need. They are all very bright people and there is more in them. They can give more to the educational system if they are allowed.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on special needs assistants, I thank the Rural Independent Group for tabling the motion and I thank Deputy Thomas Byrne for tabling his amendment. We have to look back to 20 years ago when Deputy Micheál Martin, as Minister for Education, introduced special needs assistants in schools. I remember a time prior to that when community involvement schemes were trying to pick up an urgent need in our primary schools. The SNA scheme has developed, and people have been trained and have made an enormous contribution to young children's lives, empowering and enabling them to go on to live fuller lives in their communities. This is very important.

I look at the review and the language coming down the tracks with regard to changing the model. Many times over the past 20 years this has been examined. From the outside looking in, there seems to be an attitude in the Department that this whole system needs to be changed fundamentally. Through the way it has been developed over the past 20 years it has contributed enormously, and any review of the special needs assistant scheme must ensure the existing model is continued and expanded further to empower the special needs assistants who do marvellous work in primary and post-primary schools the length and breadth of the country.

This brings me to the issue of pathways to get resources and diagnoses, and there really needs to be a critical examination of how all of this is panning out. Some parents feel they have to get a diagnosis of special needs for their children to access the services. There has to be a simplified way of doing it and making sure that smaller primary schools have the same access as larger primary schools, and that parents can make a decision for their children to go to any smaller school.

Special needs assistants have done an enormous job. They have contributed enormously to our society over the past 20 years and we must compliment them. We must compliment school management also. In whatever review is done by the Department what has to be sacrosanct is that the best available support is made available to young children as they go through primary and post-primary schools and, at this stage, through the various preschool programmes, such as the access and inclusion model, AIM, and not dismantle what has been done. At several stages over the past 20 years there have been attempts to try to dismantle it or put the genie back into the bottle. The scheme is working. Perhaps there are resource issues, but they cannot stop how we go forward.

I thank those who tabled the motion and those who are contributing to it. Do not change the whole system. In whatever reviews are done, make sure the core remains to ensure the best possible outcomes for children.

I am delighted to speak on this motion in support of special needs assistants for children in our classrooms. I acknowledge the Rural Independent Group for tabling this positive motion. It is all about ensuring that children at all stages in education have an inclusive learning environment, equal access and full participation. These are core values for Fianna Fáil, which is why we have seen such a dramatic increase since 1997 in the number of special needs assistants in our classrooms.

Special needs assistants play such a significant role with students because of the unique relationship they have with them. Because they are there for a particular need there is much more vulnerability about their jobs, and this is a worry for the special needs assistants themselves and for the children and their parents. The Minister referred to the change in the chaotic practice we have seen in allocating special needs assistants at the last minute and it is good this is being corrected. For many years, we have seen things happen at the last minute and this has put stress on the children and on the special needs assistants and their families. The comprehensive review of the special needs assistant scheme recently published by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, set out clear recommendations and there should be a timetable laid down for when they will be implemented.

According to the Fórsa trade union survey, it is very clear that more and more training is needed. People should be respected in their roles and training should be made available to them. Tá ról an-tábhachtach ag an SNA sna seomraí ranga, ag tacú le páistí síos agus suas agus timpeall na tíre. Caithfear meas a léiriú do na daoine seo agus don ról tábhachtach atá acu ag tacú lenár bpáistí sna scoileanna gach lá.

It is very timely that we are having this debate. I commend the motion and I commend the amendment tabled by my colleague. At a meeting of the education and skills committee this evening, we dealt with the area of special education for approximately three hours. It was a very interesting and informative debate, particularly with regard to coming here afterwards. The reason the committee had the debate was that we decided to have a specific meeting on the topic to ensure all children would and should be given equal opportunities to be educated in the environment that suits them best, preferably in their own community, helping them to reach their personal potential and to thrive. The role of the SNA is exceptionally important in this.

As do many of us, I deal on a day-to-day basis with parents, teachers and schools who have been dealing with a complete lack of clarity about the number of special needs assistants the schools will have. This has added to a lot of chaos in the years up to now. I accept the situation will improve, and this is very important. Last summer there were significant delays which led to significant disruption for teachers, parents and schools and deep uncertainty for the special needs assistants themselves. It is wrong they have employment uncertainty. It is wrong they do not have access to training. In very many situations, as we have seen in some of the surveys carried out by the NCSE, the special needs assistants have added in a huge way to the positive experience of children with special needs.

Last month, the Government announced a pilot project with 150 schools and preschools taking part. I welcome this. It will be in CHO7, which includes my constituency. I certainly would welcome more detail on this.

Going back to the 18-month comprehensive review by the NCSE, there is no doubt there are many students who would not be able to attend school without continuing SNA support. To get better outcomes for the children, we need to respect the role the SNAs play and we need to ensure they have certainty of tenure, that the school and the board of management have certainty about that tenure, and that everybody can work in collaboration to ensure the most positive learning environment possible for a child with special needs.

I compliment the Rural Independent Group for tabling this motion. I am glad to hear the chaotic practices of allocating special needs assistants to schools at the last minute will come to an end. Last summer, schools faced significant delays with the allocation of special needs assistants. This situation has persisted over recent years, and delays have meant that special needs assistants were only allocated to children well after the schools were closed for the summer. This created great uncertainty and disruption for schools, parents and the special needs assistants themselves.

Each year, school principals and boards of management have had to endure the weekly charade of waiting to hear whether the Minister of the day had decided to announce allocations to meet additional special needs that arose as a result of demographic changes and increases in the number of individual students assessed in their own schools. I have had a number of cases in my constituency whereby young children with special needs due to start school in September were advised by the school principal that they could not be guaranteed a place as the school did not have enough special needs assistant support to cater for them.

This is a totally unacceptable case. A family with a special needs child should have no uncertainty about the child starting school and particularly whether he or she would be accepted in a local school. This school principal found it impossible to plan and did not know the level of service she could offer. This had a serious impact on families. Families with special needs children have enough problems in trying to cope without having this added pressure.

I have said many times that governing is not the accounting service Fine Gael seems to think it is. Government is about implementing policy in a timely way to ensure people receive the service they deserve in schools. The service provided by SNAs is invaluable. It can be unbelievable the way a child can be transformed when the proper service is available. It is absolutely imperative that we get the SNA service in schools right from now on.

I wish to share time with Deputies Pat Buckley and Martin Kenny.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the motion which Sinn Féin will support and the amendment put forward by Deputy Thomas Byrne as they are logical. I acknowledge the invaluable work of special needs assistants. We cannot underestimate the difference they make to a student. They can be the difference in allowing a student to attend mainstream school and very helpful in dealing with any issue being experienced by the student, not just from an educational perspective. They are an excellent support for students, even those in the classroom who may not require or qualify for an SNA. I have direct experience of how good they are, as I have seen in my son's classroom how they have helped many children, not just the student to whom they have been assigned. They go above and beyond the call of duty.

There are nearly 35,000 students with additional needs and it is important that they be supported and allowed to reach their full potential. In April 2015 the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, made several promises to tackle the problems in working conditions for special needs assistants in schools. Unfortunately, we still have no proper job security or permanent contracts for SNAs and they are a key element of the motion which refers to a full-time and permanent contract. There are cases where we know a student will require a special needs assistant from junior infants to sixth class, but there is a crazy process whereby every year the person must apply for the job. He or she does not know if he or she will be kept on in the post and this has a knock-on effect for the rest of his or her life. For example, it may be very difficult for such persons to qualify for a mortgage or even a basic credit union loan if there is no job security or a permanent contract. We must think of how these elements relate to the issue. It is not good enough to just say we want to try to support students and parents. We need to act and ensure special needs assistants are given support and whatever training they believe they need to carry out their role.

I will mention St. Rose's in Dublin, a reading school for children with dyslexia. This September it will have no special needs assistants. Three pupils have been diagnosed as needing a special needs assistant in the coming September, but none has been assigned. As this is a school that deals, in particular, with dyslexic children, it is difficult to know how that has happened. I welcomed the increase in the allocation of special needs assistants which we thought was a great step forward, but a number of parents are still coming to me to say they are struggling and having difficulty in qualifying for a special needs assistant. Therefore, it is difficult to see how this comes together; there was an announcement of additional special needs assistants, but it does not seem to be playing out in practice.

I also agree with the motion which proposes that substitute work be taken into consideration to enable special needs assistants to gain entry to the supplementary assignment panel. It would be a really good move and help many people currently engaged in substitute work who may find themselves ineligible for inclusion in the panel. Continuous professional development is recognised as being vital in changing roles, especially when working with children. There are also the various needs of children; therefore, it is important that special assistants be given access to such professional development. Deputy Thomas Byrne mentioned respect. The best way to respect somebody's very important role in society is through rewarding that person in his or her terms and conditions and by providing a permanent contract and ensuring correct pay. We must give the people concerned continuous training.

This is a really important role and we must ensure we do not lose people. We see a crisis in the teaching sector as teachers are not staying in the role. This could potentially happen with special needs assistants too if we do not change the sector. We cannot ask people to stay in precarious jobs in which they do not know if they will have a contract. It is not the reality of people's lives. They need to know as much as possible where they stand. Having a permanent contract is key. We support the motion.

I thank the Rural Independent Group for bringing the motion before the House. The following may be a cliché, but that is only because it is true. We can judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable. Young children with special needs seeking an education are certainly vulnerable. Despite the strength and resolve they demonstrate every day in overcoming obstacles, much of their success is at the whim of those tasked with providing essential services to support them in their education. It then follows that the treatment of those tasked with supporting these children is an indication of how we mean to treat the children. If we offer poor wages and conditions, with instability, to those most valuable assistants for the children concerned, we are setting the bar very low in valuing their efforts.

Frankly, it is a great shame that being a special needs assistant is a role that continues to be unstable and unreliable for those work in it. It is a matter of policy. It has been decided that these roles are not worth ensuring or protecting and those who work in them are expendable because the children they assist are less valuable. Instead of valuing these workers, we take them for granted. They deserve stable work and decent conditions. The children for whom they work deserve to know that they will receive assistance when they need it. Instead, special needs assistants' hours have been cut. That is why in the run-up to the last budget Sinn Féin indicated that money was available to employ an additional 500 SNAs at a cost of approximately €20 million. Unfortunately, the proposal was ignored and instead the Government cut the universal social charge for higher earners.

There are 14,000 SNAs in the State and they do not have job security or the support to provide the assistance that they know young people for whom they work will need. They are being asked to take on new responsibilities as part of a reform process. They will have to broaden their role and will need to meet a higher bar of qualification. This may be what is best for the service, but we cannot ask more and give nothing. We need more SNAs who must have more security than before. If their role is to be expanded, support by way of professional development should also be provided. I support the motion and ask all others to do so also.

I welcome the debate and thank the Rural Independent Group for bringing forward the motion. It is almost 25 years - much has happened in the meantime - since the right to a mainstream education was won through court action by parents of children with special needs. That is how all this came about. In fairness, most children today are able to receive the support they need to stay in education. I know many of them and lobby the Minister regularly on behalf children who receive some special assistance but who need more. I can think of children who are at school. There is one child with Down's syndrome who needs assistance, but it was cut last year and the year before. The child is sharing an SNA and really struggling in comparison with where she was three or four years ago. As she reaches the end of primary school and goes to secondary school, it will be more difficult to obtain SNA support.

I recently came upon the case of a seven year old child with type 1 diabetes.

The child is regularly going low and has passed out several times in the classroom. She needs a full-time permanent special needs assistant. Again, it has been recommended that she share a special needs assistant with another child. We see the same situations in schools throughout the length and breadth of the country.

The comprehensive review was carried out but we need everything in the review to be implemented immediately. I understand a pilot scheme will be run in the south east. That is to be welcomed but we need the scheme rolled out throughout the country. At the moment, children on the autism spectrum cannot really be diagnosed until they are seven or eight years of age. That is normally when the diagnosis takes place. These children need care and intervention long before that. However, in the situation we have at present they are not getting that care.

The essence of the motion is that the recommendations of the comprehensive review need to be brought into action as quickly as possible. I welcome many of the Minister's comments in that respect. Unfortunately, however, the reality of the situation is that we have more children at school and the school population has grown. With this growth, the demand for special needs provision has grown as well. I expect and understand that the Minister will put forward the position that since 2011 the number of SNAs has grown by 50%. However, we need to see the number grow by a further 50% to meet the need that exists. The motion states that we need to put action in place immediately. I commend the motion and I thank the Rural Independent Group for bringing it forward.

I support the motion. It is a good motion and it is good to have this debate in the Dáil. Special needs assistants provide an invaluable service in our schools. They play a key role in our mainstream schools by helping children with special educational needs to learn with their peers in an inclusive way. While many parents and teachers appreciate the support and assistance that SNAs give to children to help them to navigate the mainstream school system, the Government consistently undervalues and under-appreciates the important role they play. Only last year, SNAs decided they had no option but to vote overwhelmingly for industrial action. This was borne out of immense frustration at what they saw as the Government's failure to listen to and address their mounting concerns.

Will the Minister indicate whether there are any plans to review the supplementary assignment panel with a view to giving more rights to SNAs who are made redundant? That is an important question and I call on the Minister to address it in some format.

I call on the Government to delay implementing the recommendation of the recent National Council for Special Education review until it consults with more than 9,000 SNAs who have union representation. Why did the NCSE fail to do this in the first place? It is important to consult with the union representing 9,000 SNAs.

I urge the Government to consider allowing SNAs sit on school boards of management to help address the power imbalance. That would allow SNAs to have a say in matters relevant for them. SNAs play an integral part in schools and I believe they should have some sort of formal representation on boards of management, if possible. This is an important teaching and supervisory role in schools. SNAs should have a more democratic say in the schools where they work and teach.

I urge all special needs assistants in the country to get organised if they are not already organised. They should join a union if they are not already members of a union.

The special needs allocation for schools for the following year was announced in the month of July in each of the years 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 - four years in a row. When SNA allocations are announced in July, it creates tremendous uncertainty for the individual SNAs. It means they finish the previous school year without knowing if they will be back in September. It also creates uncertainty for the school and students. That is the essence of precarious work.

I wish to highlight the precarious nature of this work. Where a school allocation is reduced the SNA will lose the job. The SNA then has to go on a panel and apply for jobs in the locality. However, to go on the panel the SNA must have one year of service. However, the SNA cannot include, as part of one year of service, any work done while substituting for maternity leave, sick leave, career breaks, job sharing and so on. This really underlines the need for permanent contracts.

On account of such experiences, more and more SNAs are joining unions. Late last year, SNAs balloted for strike action on precisely this issue. The vote was not 50% plus 1%. It was not 60% or 70%, which would be high for a strike ballot. In fact, 97% voted in favour. What happened this year? Two things happened this year. First, 940 new posts were announced for the following year. The announcement was not made in July or June but in the month of May, which is when it should always have taken place. I am strongly of the view that would not have happened were it not for the fact that SNAs joined trade unions and balloted by 97% in favour of strike action. It is a glimpse of what people can achieve when they organise and join a union. This approach now needs to be extended to all the other key issues facing SNAs.

I wish to conclude on the question of training. Many people have the idea that SNAs are poorly qualified. SNAs are far from poorly qualified. The notes I have before me will prove it. A survey was organised by the education division of Fórsa earlier this year. The union surveyed 2,700 SNAs. The majority had been in the job for ten years or more. The survey found that 97% of SNAs hold qualifications beyond the required Further Education and Training Awards Council level 3, which requires three junior certificate grade Ds or equivalent. A majority held either FETAC level 5 or level 6. Some 11% had attained an ordinary degree and 10% had attained an honours degree. A further 10% had a leaving certificate. Yet, the position is that the vast majority of SNAs who have undertaken extra training over and above that level have self-financed the training or have been assisted by the trade union movement. The amount of official training provided by the Department and the system as well as the amount of professional development, let alone continuing professional development, is negligible in comparison. This situation needs to end. We need recognition of the qualifications of SNAs. We need to improve upon it by putting training and facilities in place. If the Minister and the Department do not deliver on that, the unions should force change on the issue as they have done on the timing of allocations.

We adjourned a discussion on the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which tries to deal with the insecure and unequal way workers are treated in the retail industry. Now, we have come to another area of work that involves mainly women. I am referring to those who work as SNAs. They are in insecure jobs similar to the workers we were dealing with through the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. I too appeal to the workers in this area to join a union. I appeal likewise to workers in childcare and those in the English teaching sector because it is the only way such workers can push an issue onto the agenda.

I fully support the motion and I thank the Rural Independent Group for introducing it. I urge the Minister to seriously address the issues raised.

I wish to offer an example of a situation in St. Dominic's college in my area. I believe it shows the precarious nature of the work for SNAs and the associated complications. Last month, the school let go two SNAs as several children were finishing up at the end of the year and on the basis of the hours there was no longer work for them.

There might be work next year but there is none now. Two of these special needs assistants, SNAs, went on the panel and one has a job for September. The reduced hours mean that the next person has had her hours reduced from full time to 0.33 of a position, that is, two hours and five minutes every day Monday to Friday. She earns about €220 every two weeks, having gone from full-time hours to 0.33 of a position. This woman is married with two children and she has been reduced to working only ten hours 25 minutes per week. She is unable to go on the panel for full-time hours as she has a job. If she left her job, she could not go on the panel because the job has to be suppressed for a person to go on the panel or take redundancy. She cannot get jobseeker's benefit for the extra hours because the job is over five days, Monday to Friday. She is really getting kicked around the place. There is no way anyone could stand over a worker being subjected to such conditions. She has applied for full-time positions in eight schools but because she has no panel rights, she is not getting them. She feels financially penalised and prevented from earning a full wage.

The Minister cannot stand over that and it must be addressed. The motion is calling for permanent contracts for these workers. They cannot be treated like second class citizens, or third class ones, as is the case here. This woman has more experience than the SNAs who were let go, because it was a case of last in first out, but she is getting these low hours. It is crazy. This woman is earning a quarter of her old wage and has no expectation of earning more unless additional children come into the school and increase her hours. Can the Minister stand over this inherent inequality?

Crucially, SNAs are also impacted by FEMPI. SNAs on post-2011 contracts earn €12 an hour whereas the person I spoke to was earning €18 an hour, she was employed prior to 2011 and was on the eighth point of the scale. That issue must also be addressed.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue of the circumstances of special needs assistants. SNAs are the vital links between children with special needs and the school community. This important relationship should be protected and supported in every way. However, the cuts imposed on SNAs to date have disproportionately impacted on children with disabilities and their future prospects as a result. For that reason, I welcome the 18-month review of the SNA programme which called for the broadening of the roles of SNAs from the current model of basic care provision to the assistance of delivery of speech and language and occupational therapy. However, I call on the Government to put in place the necessary supports, financial or otherwise, so that the burden of implementing the new system is not put entirely on the shoulders of SNAs.

I am delighted to hear that under the new system it will no longer be necessary for a child to receive a diagnosis of disability in order to access SNA services. Under the new model they will receive additional training and will be known as inclusive supports assistants. I hope that under the new model pupils will have unfettered access to necessary supports based on their needs rather than a disability diagnosis, which should have always been the case. I am also concerned over whether the Government will provide funding for existing SNAs to attend a national training programme if they do not have the requisite level of relevant training or for inclusion support assistants on appointment.

I also call on the Government to look at existing inequalities in special needs provision in schools across the country. The Irish Times recently found that 29% of mainstream secondary schools have special classes which rises to 42% in DEIS schools. However, it is interesting that there are no special classes in the 52 secondary schools that make up the fee-paying sector. This should be looked into, and seriously, because it makes a lie of the idea that education is for everybody. The only thing that they recognise is the ability to pay.

Now that we have got rid of the baptism barrier, we need to look at the soft barriers used by schools which claim that they do not have room or resources for special classes even though money should follow the student. Schools must be stewards of inclusivity and pave the way for all children regardless of ability to lead full and complete lives full of opportunities on an equal footing to each other. Let us hope that the Government's treatment of this new model departs drastically from its own past actions and treatment of the education system so far so that they can do more than provide an education but also provide for the growth and stability of the people who need it.

We return to the Rural Independent Group. I call Deputies Danny Healy-Rae and Michael Healy-Rae.

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this very important motion. We must all recognise that the special needs assistant scheme is vital in ensuring the integration of children with special needs into mainstream education and the positive role SNAs play in the development of children in schools. They must be thanked for the great work they do and the way that they bring children forward. They play a key role in supporting children who have additional care needs to attend school and participate in education.

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, that is, covering maternity or sick leave, career breaks or job sharing does not count. Parents have to fight and are rightfully very anxious that their child gets the necessary special training to bring their child to the same level as the other children. It is clear that children who have the greatest need require intervention from a very early age. Most improve greatly as a result. Sadly, some may not especially those who are not assisted in time. Sometimes these children reach adulthood and become physically very strong and become a worry to their parents. Often they present with mental health issues and sometimes can even be a threat to their parents. In Kerry there are few supports, if any, for these children or grown-up adults. Parents have no respite or assistance. I know one poor mother who must lock her door every night because she is afraid of her son. One mother in north Kerry lost her life after her son killed her.

Each year, principals and boards of management spend significant time making applications for SNA supports in their schools. We call on the Government to provide job security for SNAs by providing permanent contracts. One SNA who was in a position for over 12 years has been made redundant twice in the last three years. That is not good enough.

It has to be recognised that SNAs carry out several different duties in the schools including toileting, facilitating students' mobility, escorting students around the school, feeding and dressing. It is an intense job, mentally and physically. One is on the go for all the hours one is in the school. I ask the Minister to give us the support we are looking for in this motion.

I thank David and Máirín McGrath in the office of our Whip, Deputy Mattie McGrath, for the work they have done in preparing the Private Members' motion which we are bringing before the House. I thank SNAs throughout the country. They play a vital and important role. I see it at first hand when dealing with school management and parents' committees that are tasked with trying to run our schools, along with the principals and teachers. The role of SNAs is actually vital. Not one of us can really put our finger on the reason educational needs have changed so much over the last 20 years. Perhaps it is down to the diagnosing of the problems that students have. We are able to put names on the different learning difficulties of students. That is why we are able to recognise that special needs assistants are required in the schools. They play a vital role.

Job security is of major importance. There are young people who go away and get education and then become special needs assistants, but they do not have job security. They are left in limbo. They have mortgages too. They have loans for motorcars to get to work. They are trying to live their lives and rear their own children and they do not have job security. That is something about which I feel very strongly. The Minister spoke here earlier, as he did a couple of weeks ago. I refer to commitments given by this Government and others which were not kept. That is why I believe that we need promises to be made but also to be kept. We need finance to be given and assured. We need schools to be able to give full-time employment to their special needs assistants. We know that the work is there for them and that it will be there for them. Therefore, it is only right and proper that they be given full-time jobs and the security and everything else that goes with that.

Our own life experiences are very important in allowing us to learn of the needs some younger people have. I faced into my teens without the ability to read or write. At that time there was no such thing as special needs assistants in schools. It was very difficult for people who suffer from dyslexia. At that time it was not identified in the way it is now, which caused trouble and posed difficulties in learning. I appreciate the great work that is done every day by SNAs because of my own experiences in the past.

That brings me onto the point I purposefully wanted to leave until last because I did not want to waste the time I had. I wanted to try to cover the issues that were important and to highlight the problems that we have and the whole thrust of the motion we brought forward in our group. However, I have to clarify one thing. There is one thing I take very seriously. I never in my life get up any day to insult, offend or put out anybody. I would never do such a thing. For any person inside this House to take what other people - I am talking specifically about our Whip, Deputy Mattie McGrath, and about Deputy Michael Collins and myself - have done and issues we were raising at a particular time and to go out of this Chamber tweeting and issuing press releases is hurtful.

I was very glad that my own radio station in County Kerry, Radio Kerry, allowed me the opportunity to go on and to clear my name and clarify the work I have been doing for many years. I am not a Johnny-come-lately to politics who dropped out of the sky the other day. I have been around the schools for many years. I treasure and adore the work they do, the work people do in dealing with people with special needs, and the students themselves. I adore them. I can only talk for myself but I know I have permission to talk on behalf of my colleagues, but for a particular Deputy to take it upon herself to bullyrag us around this country and to tell lies is the most hurtful thing that any person-----

I do not know what the Deputy is talking about.

To tell mistruths-----

On a point of information, the Deputy is referring to me.

I am glad the Deputy is putting up her hand. It is herself I am talking about. For any person to tell a mistruth about another Deputy or about any politician-----

It is not a mistruth.

-----is totally wrong. Deputy Funchion must be like a fairy godmother who can see into the future if she could see what we were going to do.

I have to say something because the Deputy is referring to me.

I want to put it on the record that if another person wants to go down into the gutter, I will not follow them. I will still never insult anybody else. I want to put on the record of the Dáil that I am standing up for myself, my track record and the track records of my colleagues who are also respectable people who are committed to their communities. We will not be bullyragged by anyone.

Can I come in on this? This came up earlier in the debate when the Leas-Cheann Comhairle was in the Chair. The Deputies are referring to a vote they called on Wednesday, 30 May. The vote was on special educational needs. They called a division on that and were embarrassed afterwards because it was revealed.

We were perfectly entitled to call a division.


That has nothing to do with-----

That is what they are talking about.

That has nothing to do with the matter before us.

To clarify, that is what they are referring to.

The Deputy misled the people.

They are saying I misled people. I did not.


They called the vote. It is on the record.

It is not appropriate-----

The Deputies are embarrassing themselves further. They already embarrassed themselves that night and they are embarrassing themselves further by raising it again. Obviously I touched a bit of a nerve.

Can we all have a little bit of respect for each other?

And for the motion.

I welcome the contributions of Members to the important debate we are having this evening. The SNA scheme is one of the main components of the overall support structure for children with special educational needs which is provided by the Department of Education and Skills. In 2011 the Department spent some €1.247 billion on special educational needs. This year the Department will spend some €1.78 billion on special education needs. By any measure, this is a very substantial investment and constitutes an increase of some 42%, much of which was provided during the worst economic crisis to affect our country. This investment has enabled the growing participation of children with special educational needs in our schools and will ensure that their participation and progression within the education system continues to be fully supported.

Each year more and more children have availed of the support of SNAs. This year more than 34,600 children will be supported by SNAs. That is the positive. Many children are supported to remain longer in schools than they might have in the past without this support. However, it is important that we test and review our systems to ensure that they remain the most effective and relevant form of support. For this reason the Minister, Deputy Bruton, has strongly welcomed the recently completed comprehensive review conducted by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. I ask colleagues to read it and read it again. It is a very good document and a really comprehensive review. In undertaking the review, the NCSE consulted widely with education partners and stakeholders, including SNAs and their representatives and parents and students. The recommendations of the report have taken account of inputs from all of these stakeholders, including SNAs and their representatives.

The review highlighted the important role SNAs play in assisting students with additional care needs to attend school and acknowledged that the scheme is greatly valued by parents, students and schools. Recommendations for a new front-loaded model of allocation and the development of structured professional development for SNAs are very positive outcomes and their implementation would ensure this very valuable support is targeted to deliver the right supports at the right time to students with additional care needs.

The SNA scheme will provide for the allocation of some 15,000 SNAs across some 3,500 schools this year. SNAs are employed by boards of management and are subject to the normal employment terms and conditions for such positions. Duties are determined by the boards of management and these are guided by Department circular 30/2014, which lists the primary and secondary functions to be undertaken by SNAs in schools. The Department is confident that the supplementary panel arrangements which are in place are sufficiently responsive to the needs of SNAs. As stated previously, the panel arrangements have been demonstrated to work effectively for SNAs and schools, and the Minister, Deputy Bruton, is committed to the continued effective operation of the scheme in consultation with education partners, as provided for in national agreements.

Procedures are in place involving schools, school management bodies, the Department of Education and Skills and staff interests to deal with SNA grievances and issues at school and national levels, and the Department will continue to engage with staff interests and school management on SNA matters. Due to the annual increase in SNA available positions and the guidance and supplementary panel arrangements already agreed and in place, the position for SNAs has markedly improved in terms of job security and stability of employment. With the implementation of the recommendations in the comprehensive review of the SNA scheme, that will improve even further. There will be more certainty when that happens.

I look forward to the Government considering proposals for the implementation of the recommendations of the NCSE review to ensure that the delivery of supports to children with special educational needs is both better and more equitable for future years, and to ensure we provide for the best outcomes possible for students with special educational needs.

Additional training and upskilling of SNAs is included in the recommendations. We welcome the motion. This is an important debate. It is important that we keep this to the fore. Thirty-four thousand six hundred and fifty students are receiving support at present. This represents a huge increase. Colleagues are correct, however, that we need to keep reviewing. We need to keep improving and doing better. That is what the Minister and Department want to do and are doing with the support of colleagues in the House. I thank my colleagues for the debate.

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le gach Teachta. I thank the Minister, Minister of State and all the contributors for supporting the motion and for their genuine, heartfelt support for SNAs, who do a tremendous, caring, dedicated, valuable job. As said earlier, they see it as a career or vocation. The majority I come across in Tipperary, from Carrick-on-Suir up to Moneygall and across from Araglin to Ballingarry, work diligently day in, day out. It is more than work; it is a vocation. They look after a very special cohort of children, who are vulnerable and who have very sensitive needs.

It is a pity it had to end up in an argument because we are all passionate about this. I will not even refer to what was said in tweets and other media. Let the people decide that this is something we must reflect on with a view to offering support and better working conditions. The conditions of service need to be improved greatly. Special employment conditions need to be considered. What is occurring is totally unfair. We were debating the employment legislation earlier and seeking conditions and rights but the cohort I am referring to, who are doing such vital, valuable, dedicated work, have no real secure tenure of employment.

I recognise what the Minister said and the effort he and the Minister of State are making. Tosach maith, leath na hoibre. I acknowledge that. We are not being negative. We want to be as positive as we can this evening. I welcome the report to which both Ministers referred, the NESC report. It is very timely. SNAs have been with us for a while. They were seriously affected by the downturn in the economy and the FEMPI cuts, which people seem to want to forget about. Many Deputies on my right reminded us that Deputy Micheál Martin played a role in this. Of course, he has. We all do. We want to make the conditions better and look after those affected, especially the daoine óga and those with special needs.

There was a wonderful testimony from Deputy Michael Healy-Rae. He said dyslexia, dyspraxia and many such conditions were not even heard of 20 years ago. They were certainly unheard of when we were in school. My late brother was a paediatrician of some renown. He did a lot of work in this area. When he used words associated with the area, I did not know what he meant. It is a bad day on which one does not learn something. We have come a long way but we have a long way to go.

The Minister referred to the fact that more children are presenting. They are. There is an earlier diagnosis, which is vital for the children. It is very important to their future. We must try to keep pace in meeting the needs because there are people presenting with conditions that did not present before.

I listened carefully to Deputy Harty. The SNAs are at the front line of the service when parents present with a child who, for whatever reason, is just not able to engage practically and reasonably with their siblings and friends. The parents are worried and really upset. The parents used always be waiting until July. Deputy Barry referred to the overwhelming vote by the SNAs. There were put to the pin of their collar. They had to make their stand. I hope that, as a result of the vote and threat of industrial action, the Minister will take action. He was able to find the funding. Thankfully, we are now in a better situation financially but, as I said, mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí. It is the very start for those concerned. It is their early years education.

I could not say enough about the SNAs who operate in the schools with which I am familiar. I have served on boards of management of national schools and secondary schools and I served on a naíonra. I served at all levels except third level. I am in the fourth level at the moment, learning something every day, I hope. Often we might need special assistance from the Ceann Comhairle or Leas-Cheann Comhairle to keep us on track and sometimes to protect us.

I listened very carefully to what the Minister said this evening. I am not sure it will prove to be of comfort to the parents in schools who are sick and tired of hearing how committed the Department is to SNAs because, nevertheless, it allows dysfunction to continue year after year. I know the Department has a job to do but it needs to empathise and walk in the shoes of the parents with the children concerned. It needs to walk in the shoes of the SNAs. I met SNAs in St. Mary's CBS in Irishtown this year. It has two special units. There were champions there in Mr. Ryan, a former principal, and the others who set them up. They make an effort. A whole-school team makes an effort and the SNAs are a vital cog in the wheel. They do tremendous work and they are dedicated and compassionate. They are attached to the children when they are in the school. They wait, ready, willing and able, for the new cohort each year.

The role of SNAs is very clearly laid out in the Department's circular of 2014. It confirms that SNAs are those providing schools with additional support staff who can assist children with special educational needs who also have additional and significant care needs, as everybody referred to tonight. That phrase "additional and significant care needs" really goes to the heart of why this motion and issue are so important.

I thank my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group and our staff and everybody else who assisted us.

We know from the NCSE that more than 34,600 students are currently being supported and that SNAs are deeply valued. We want that to continue. The Minister mentioned the comprehensive review of the special needs assistant scheme carried out by the NCSE. That review found a broader range of support options is required to address students' additional care and support needs in schools. The Minister was talking glowingly about the report but we cannot be selective; we must dig deep into the whole comprehensive report.

The National Council for Special Education considers that the broader range of support options required to address students' additional care needs includes timely access to support from personnel with relevant qualifications and a wide set of skill sets. An example of this was provided and I want to repeat it to highlight why changes are important. A student may require support because of severe sensory processing difficulties associated with an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, diagnosis. In such cases, his or her school may require support from a behaviour practitioner to assist in addressing the behaviour difficulties that arise from the sensory processing difficulties. The school may also require advice from an occupational therapist to explore environmental adaptations which could assist in reducing the level of sensory difficulty the student experiences in the first place. These interventions will help the student build coping skills, not just manage the symptoms. It is vital to intervene as early as possible. The example makes it clear what is at stake.

The NCSE, as part of its review, also recommended that, in line with international best practice, students' additional care needs are identified and met through a continuum of support frameworks which includes whole-school, targeted-school and intensive-school support within an inclusive school context. That is really what parents want for their children. That is what SNAs want to deliver day in, day out, every week. It must be a wrap-around service which supports all the needs of the children, delivered by hard-working and committed SNAs with permanent job security. It is not a big ask. It is a vocation for the SNAs and they want to help. They have upskilled themselves but they need more retraining to deal with the different complexities which are thrown up with new diagnoses regularly. They need the best possible support.

Above all, they need respect from their employer, the Department, which works through the boards of management. Membership of a board of management is an arduous task. Boards of management have to deal with employment legislation, health and safety regulations agus gach rud eile. The Minister must support the boards of management, the parents' councils, the teaching staff, as well as the ancillary school staff down to the caretakers. SNAs need certainty. They do not need to be told in May, June or July that they will have a contract in September. An SNA losing his or her position can be an emotional wrench. While they lack job security, they have passion, dedication, enthusiasm and a vocational spirit as educators to those young children with special needs. They impart those skill sets to the parents. Parents are happy to leave their children in school, knowing they will be cared for and properly looked after.

I salute the SNAs up and down the country. The Government must put its money where its mouth is and implement - fully, not selectively - the recommendations of the report.

Amendment put and agreed to.
Motion, as amended, put and agreed to.
The Dáil adjourned at 9.55 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 27 June 2018.