Skip to main content
Normal View

Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science debate -
Tuesday, 21 Jun 2022

Revised Criteria for Qualifications of Special Needs Assistants: Discussion

Apologies have been received from Senator Fiona O'Loughlin. Senator Malcolm Byrne is attending in her place. I remind members to ensure their mobile phones are switched off for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment of the House, even when on silent mode.

The draft minutes of the meeting of 14 June have been circulated. Are the minutes agreed to? Agreed.

The first session will be with the Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion, Deputy Josepha Madigan. The second session will be with Fórsa, the trade union, and a representative group of special needs assistants, SNAs. On behalf of the committee, I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and her officials to discuss the need for revised criteria for the qualifications of special needs assistants.

As for the format of the meeting, I will invite the Minister of State to make a brief opening statement for five minutes, which will be followed by questions from members. Each member will have a five-minute slot because the Minister of State has to leave at noon. We have about 55 minutes. I ask members and the Minister of State to stick rigidly to their five-minute slots. If I interject, it is because I want to give every member an opportunity to ask their questions. As everyone will be aware, the committee will publish the opening statement on its website following the meeting.

I remind Members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. That applies to all members.

I thank the Minister of State for attending. I remind members that I want to stick to the topic we are here to discuss, namely, the revised criteria for special needs assistants, because we only have 55 minutes and we have another group appearing before us later.

I thank the committee for the invitation to be here today. I am accompanied by Ms Martina Mannion, assistant secretary for special education and inclusion; Mr. Mark Bohan, principal officer, external staff relations; and Ms Andrina Donovan, assistant principal officer, special education section. The topic before the committee is the revised qualifications for special needs assistants.

I would like to acknowledge the important work and significant role of SNAs in schools in supporting some of the country’s most vulnerable children. The work and commitment of SNAs ensure that children with special educational needs, SEN, can attend school and participate in school life to the fullest possible extent.

As Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion, I am committed to making a difference for students who have special educational needs as part of an inclusive education system. Children with SEN should be supported to access the education system. As a Government, we fully recognise the importance of an inclusive and all-embracing education system. Never is it more important than in the case of children with special educational needs. I fundamentally believe that our most vulnerable children in society must be prioritised.

Government policy on supporting children with special educational needs aims to ensure that all children with special needs can have access to an education appropriate to their needs. Our policy is to provide for inclusive education and to ensure the maximum possible integration of children with special needs into ordinary mainstream schools. Where pupils require more targeted interventions, special class or special school placements are also provided.

Working collaboratively with teachers and parents, SNAs ensure that children with special educational needs are educated alongside their peers in mainstream class settings, special classes and special schools. Being able to access education in an inclusive way is key to living life to its fullest. In doing so, we are helping these children to grow, develop and be as independent as possible. The work of an SNA with children with special educational needs is key in this regard and we have evidence of this from the National Council for Special Education’s, NCSE, comprehensive review, which was undertaken in 2018.

That review made a number of recommendations regarding SNAs, including referencing the training needs of SNAs. In this regard, the NCSE recommended that a new national training programme at level 5 of the national qualifications framework be developed for existing SNAs who do not have the requisite level of training and for new SNAs on appointment. The policy advice was considered by the Department. It was decided that priority should be given to the development of a training programme for SNAs who may not have had a recent opportunity to access a training programme tailored to their role.

A public procurement competition was held for the development and delivery of a new national training programme for SNAs. The contract was awarded, as the committee knows, to University College Dublin, UCD, school of education, in conjunction with the UCD school of nursing, midwifery and health systems. UCD has a strong reputation in the world of education and training. It brings with it a wealth of experience and research knowledge in the training and has very strong quality assurance arrangements for its programmes.

Feedback from programme participants is a key feature of this quality assurance process. This is a major educational initiative, which will enhance the knowledge, skills and expertise of SNAs who are crucial to the inclusion of students with additional care needs in the education system. The programme is fully funded by the Department and delivered at no cost to the SNA. The programme began in January 2021 recruiting the first cohort of 500 SNAs. A second cohort of approximately 900 SNAs is currently completing the programme with recruitment under way for a third cohort to begin in September 2022. That has a target recruitment of 1,000 SNAs.

This is the first national training programme for SNAs employed in schools and is tailored to their needs. As this is the first programme, it is appropriate to take the time to review outcomes which will inform the future approach to ongoing training and professional development of SNAs. Part of that consideration will include accreditation. Officials in my Department have recently received two reports of the programme from UCD, namely, a report of review on the SNA programme conducted by the teaching and learning committee in UCD school of education and an evaluation report. The reports are under review and will inform our consideration on accreditation.

On the minimum qualification, I am aware of Fórsa’s campaign to have the minimum essential qualification for SNAs reviewed. The Department has communicated to Fórsa that it is open to reviewing the position. However, the Department is of the view that the forthcoming review of the SNA contract proposed as part of the Building Momentum national pay agreement should be carried out and implemented first. There has been initial engagement between the Department and Fórsa on the matter and the issues of the scope and actual approach of the review are being considered by the Department.

This year, the Department of Education will spend over 25% of our total educational budget. By the end of the year, there will be 19,169 SNAs, which is an increase of 81%.

I do not want to go too far over my time so I will conclude. Providing support and training for SNAs is a major priority for me and the Department. I am happy to answer any questions.

I thank the Minister of State. I call Deputy Ó Laoghaire, who is standing in for Deputy Conway-Walsh.

For far too long, the SNA has been very much the poor relation in the education system and is often an afterthought. The role was created almost 40 years ago and over that time, it has evolved enormously. SNAs play a crucial role and I hope this hearing and the review of minimum qualifications can be a new beginning for them in the Irish education system. The importance of the SNA role is underlined by the fact that every Deputy and Senator is inundated each year with queries from schools and parents who are unhappy at the allocation of SNAs for their school compared with what the children in the school needs. It reflects the feeling among schools that they are under severe pressure. They are unable to ensure that children can reach their fullest potential if they do not have an adequate allocation of SNAs.

Over the past four or five years, an additional 1,000 or 1,500 SNAs have been announced every year. That is one element in the budget that I have welcomed. However, I made the point to the Minister of State last week that the number announced is usually not realised. Around 800 SNAs are usually recruited. Part of the difficulty is that the job is not attractive enough for people to either enter as a career or stay in, despite how rewarding it is in several respects. That is one issue we need to crack.

I note the comment in Fórsa's opening statement that the Minister of State with responsibility for special education had indicated to Fórsa, through her private secretary, that she was open to considering the accreditation of the UCD programme but that Fórsa had not been informed of any further developments. The Minister of State commented on two reports she will review which will inform considerations on accreditation. That seems to at least indicate an openness to the accreditation question, which I welcome. Will the Minister of State like an opportunity to expand on that? Is she keen to see accreditation happen?

What type of timescale does she have in mind for that?

I thank the Deputy for his comments. In terms of the allocation of SNAs generally, there was provision for an allocation of 1,165 in budget 2022. For the information of the Deputy and the committee, 623 of those SNAs have so far been allocated, with the balance of 542 to be allocated by the end of the year. That probably will be done through the exceptional review process and there will be posts for special schools and special classes.

On accreditation, as I said in my opening statement and as I have said before at this committee and in exchanges with the Deputy in the Dáil Chamber, one of the first things we wanted to do, following the comprehensive review the NCSE did of the SNA scheme, was to make sure we put training in place, which we did. I referred to the UCD course, in which 3,500 SNAs will take part. As it is the first instance of this programme, it is important that we take time to review the course and its outcomes. Part of the consideration under that review will be looking at accreditation of SNAs.

Two reports have come in to us, the first being the review of the SNA programme, which was conducted by the teaching and learning committee within the UCD school of education. The second report was an evaluation based on data gathered from the first cohort of students who completed the programme. The feedback of these SNAs who participated in the course is going to be extremely important. Both reports are under review by officials at present and they will inform our consideration of accreditation. It is important to say that. It certainly is not something that is being ruled out, but there is a process to follow and we need to take it step by step.

I thank the Minister of State. She did not give a timescale for that process, which, time allowing, she might do later. My second question relates to her position on minimum qualifications, which is that the review of the SNA contract, as part of the Building Momentum action plan, should be carried out and implemented first. I have put it to her before that this is putting the cart before the horse. Surely the contract should reflect the work that is being done at this time. It would be most logical to have an independent review of the current qualifications, which could have been begun some time ago, in order to inform a future contract. The Minister of State might be able to give us a timescale in this regard. Surely the carrying out of a review of the SNA contract and its implementation could take two or three years. Is that not the case?

I am going to call the next member because I am very conscious that the Minister of State has to leave by noon. That was the agreement. I will give her five minutes at the end to sum up and deal with any questions she has not answered. She might take a note of those questions.

If I may, Chairman, I will answer Deputy Ó Laoghaire's question now.

I ask the Minister of State to do so quickly.

I will. It would be impossible to remember all the questions. I assure the Deputy that the review will be done this year. Although we are looking for a review of the SNA contract first, there is a separate ongoing discussion with UCD. We do not necessarily have to wait for agreement on the contract; there is a separate conversation going on with UCD around the minimum qualifications. The ideal situation is to have the contract review first and then review the minimum entry qualifications.

I thank the Minister of State and the witnesses for attending the meeting. To echo Deputy Ó Laoghaire's point, while it is welcome that the accreditation issue is being addressed, the sooner it is resolved the better. As the Minister of State will understand, if people are entering into a course or programme of study, they would like some certainty as to the nature of the award and recognition they will receive at the end of that process. Can she give us any timeframe in this regard? Is it fair to say that all of this could be completed within the next academic year or even for the students starting the next programme?

Clearly, I would like it done as expeditiously as possible. It is my personal preference that there would be accreditation for SNAs. The role they play in our schools is extremely important and, in fact, children's additional needs simply would not survive without their assistance. To a certain extent, over the years they may have been undervalued and I want to change that, but there is a process that needs to be followed through. We are looking actively at the two reports at present and part of that consideration is accreditation. I hope it will be done as soon as possible. As the Senator knows, it can be difficult to give definitive timelines but I hope it will be done as expeditiously as possible.

I appreciate the Minister of State may not necessarily be able to get into the details of the SNA contract negotiations. She referred to the specialised nature of the work and we all appreciate the work SNAs do. As the Minister of State herself said, those students with special educational needs in many cases would not survive without the support of SNAs. One thing that is important as part of any contract is that there is a requirement that the SNAs would specifically focus on the needs of those students with special educational needs and, in other words, that they are not seen as part of an overall staffing cohort within a school. I ask for the Minister of State's view with regard to that specific provision within the contract, namely, that the focus must be on the students with special educational needs as opposed to more general duties within the school.

That is a very pertinent point. Clearly, children with the greatest level of needs need to be looked after, and that is the role of the SNA. It is primarily at the discretion of the school management authority how it deploys the SNAs within the school, but it is vital they are used for that purpose and only that purpose. It can be difficult to be prescriptive as to exactly the role of an SNA is. There is a primary role around, for example, feeding and primary care issues like that, and then there are more secondary roles around classwork, tidying desks and that sort of thing, but it is important they are treated with they respect they deserve and that the teachers treat them in that manner. They are recruited specifically to assist schools in providing the necessary non-teaching services to pupils with special educational needs. The SNA contract does set out the duties but, as I said, there can be flexibility around that. The most important thing is that the children's additional needs receive the support from the SNA and the SNA is not used for any purpose other than that.

That is critical. I am conscious that the new system of post allocation that is planned is based on current student needs and a range of criteria, and it is for a two to three-year period. My question relates to new schools for rapidly-expanding schools where a significant number of new students are enrolled within the school at any one time. This can be in areas of high population growth or where, for example, a significant number of Ukrainian students may be taken on board. Will the Minister of State outline what provision will be made for schools in those circumstances?

Schools that are prioritised, particularly around the exceptional review, are developing schools and also schools that have no SNAs. As the Senator knows, the allocations have not changed since 2019. However, approximately 1,000 extra SNAs were given in 2020 and also an extra 1,000 in 2021. The exceptional review process is there if a school feels it does not have sufficient allocation.

With regard to the Ukrainians, we now have 7,000 Ukrainian children in schools and part of the unified allocation under the special education teaching, SET, allocation will go towards assisting those children. They can also avail of summer provision but it is important they are looked after in the same way. We also have the regional education and language teams, REALT, which will assist with Ukrainian pupils as well.

I welcome the Minister of State. It is great to see the number of SNAs. Will she comment on the increases in recent years? In my local area of Roscommon and Galway the increase has had a huge impact. Many more schools offer special needs classes and more children are being brought into the mainstream. We are dealing with inclusion. This is what all of this is about. It is that we treat people in the same way, that they get the same access and that we have special supports in place. SNAs provide us with the opportunity to be able to include children in our mainstream classes. How many SNAs have we had in the past year or two? I would also like information on the budgets.

As with so many roles in society, qualifications are a way to acknowledge the work and effort made by people. The work of SNAs, as with healthcare assistants, can go unseen. SNAs work with teachers in the classroom and with principals and they are integral part of a school. They may be a new addition to the teaching staff in a school. Many courses, particularly those provided by education and training boards, recognise prior learning. SNAs should be acknowledged for the role they play. Certain training programmes have been rolled out recently for SNAs. Will the Minister of State comment on the training programmes in place to support the people in these roles to provide the best care they can and reach their potential?

The Senator asked for number of SNAs. Since 2011, there has been an increase of 81% in the number of SNAs. By the end of the year we will have 19,169. There are 15 special classes in Galway and five in Roscommon. I have figures from 31 May. We have 11,174.79 SNAs in mainstream education, 4,613.92 in special classes and 2,775 in special schools. This gives an indication of how they are spread out among the various types of placements that we have.

We know what the minimum qualifications are. People must have at least a pass in mathematics, Irish and English at junior certificate or equivalent. This has not taken away from the calibre of the SNAs we have. It is important to point this out. The Senator mentioned the training programme. The main training programme is in UCD. We have invested €2.54 million in it and 3,500 people will be trained. There are six modules covering inclusive education for children, language, communication, autism, dealing with medical and complex needs, promoting positive behaviour and self-regulation. There is also the professional development of the SNAs themselves. We have promoted it primarily through the NCSE programme teams and social media. We have a four-year contract with UCD. It is the start of what we can do in this area.

That is fantastic. It is very good to hear. It is good to get a breakdown of the numbers. Ballinasloe has a number of primary schools with special classes. We also have one of the 120 special needs schools in the country. It deals with children with severe to profound special needs. It is crucial that we have these services. There are more than 11,000 SNAs in mainstream classes and more than 4,500 in special classes. This shows how crucial it is to have SNAs. As the Minister of State said, we have 19,000 SNAs who deal with almost 16,000 children. She has provided a breakdown of the service offered.

It is important we continue with the supports for our schools. I refer especially to encouraging our schools to take on special classes and to ensure they have the resources and capacity to be able to take children in. This has been a major issue. I thank the Minister of State for the work she is doing with schools in ensuring there is capacity for children with special needs.

I welcome the Minister of State. I congratulate Fórsa and the individual SNAs who have brought this conversation to the heart of the Houses of the Oireachtas today. It shows the power of joining a union. The tag line or slogan the SNAs are using is "Respect for SNAs". In my work in this area over several years, the lack of respect has become clear to me. I wish to link this back to the basic requirements. In an individual school, for example, the teachers can often be called by their second names while the SNAs will be called by their first names. This is a clear message to everybody in the school regarding who is deserving of more respect. Everybody can see and hear that and the children, more effectively and profoundly, can see that. It does not happen in every school, but it is the case in many schools. It would be "Mr. Kehoe" or "Ms Dolan" and then "Bernie" or "Michael". This sends a strong message.

SNAs have told me that the continuing professional development, CPD, available to teachers is not available to them. We have had the conversation around the allocation for next year only being released on 31 May. There are other issues in the system regarding July provision and the different rates of pay for doing the same job. On a day-to-day basis as well, SNAs are tasked with doing some pretty menial jobs in the classroom or school setting. Much of this is based, I believe, on the connection between the basic requirements to become an SNA and their status in the school and in the system. Therefore, this situation does not just depend on how a teacher or a school treats SNAs. It is about how the Department treats them. Would the Minister of State accept there is a link between the day-to-day disrespect some SNAs have experienced and this minimum requirement issue?

To give the Minister of State time to answer my questions, my other query concerns whether she is in a position to say she wants to get the accreditation recognised and change the minimum requirements for SNAs, and that she will go through a process of a review. Is it her stated objective, as the Minister of State, to change these things? I ask this because there are two types of ministerial responses in my experience. One type of response from a Minister or Minister of State is passive and states there is a review and he or she will see what happens after that. The other type of response from a Minister or Minister of State, however, states the outcome he or she wants and, while he or she will listen to what the Department is saying, he or she fundamentally believes the accreditation needs to be recognised and the minimum requirements need to change.

Those are my two questions. One was on the link between the minimum qualification requirements and the basic respect SNAs do or do not get. The second concerned the Minister of State's personal conviction in this area.

I already gave my personal view. I said I think SNAs should be accredited. My personal view is important, but it is not everything either. There is a process that must be followed. As Deputy Ó Ríordáin knows, the issue around the minimum requirements is already with the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and the Department is engaging with that process. Of course, if a Minister or Minister of State expresses a view, then it means that makes a difference. It cannot, however, change everything. I have, however, made it clear to the Department that I do think we must look at the minimum qualifications and at the issue of accreditation. This is important.

Turning to the parity of esteem issue the Deputy spoke about, as he is aware, there is an industrial relations forum in place that provides a structured process to manage any industrial relations issues that arise in this sector. That forum provides a dedicated channel for Fórsa to raise matters of interest or concern. There is a sectoral aspect to this context, which the union has used in the past. Fórsa has sought a range of additional leave for SNAs through the industrial relations mechanisms and the Department is engaging with the union on these claims as well. The fact that one public service grade has access to certain leave or other conditions of employment, however, does not automatically mean other grades should. Each claim is examined on its own merits and in the context of the impact on the system of increased leave in respect of cost.

The fact one particular public service grade has access to certain leave or other conditions of employment does not automatically mean other grades should. Each claim is examined on its own merits and with regard to the impact on the system of increased leave and cost.

I get the point around the link, nonetheless, and having respect for special needs assistants. I also get the point about them being called by their first name rather than their surnames. Perhaps guidance could be given around that. Circulars exist but perhaps they could be revisited so it could be emphasised with schools that there should be respect for SNAs at all times. Neither principals nor staff would be in the position to look after the children with additional needs without the SNAs, who are an integral part of the process. To a certain extent they are perhaps the most important part of looking after children with additional needs.

If there is time remaining, I will give people an extra minute or so to come in again.

I thank the Minister of State for appearing before the committee and her opening statement. In preparing this morning, I had a look at Circular 30/14, which is still the central circular in terms of SNA allocation. It speaks a little to Deputy Ó Ríordáin's point, which is about the professionalisation of this workforce. I do not for a second question the professionalism of any of the SNAs with whom I have worked, who were exemplary in their professionalism. It is a question of how they are treated within schools and how their roles are understood.

I had a look at that circular from 2014, which cited a review from the then Department of Education and Skills that found the deployment of SNAs in schools had, in practice, moved away from the objectives originally envisaged, which were to provide for children's care needs, and had moved towards SNA involvement in behavioural, therapeutic, pedagogical, teaching and administrative duties. I wonder if we held that review today would there be any less confusion around the roles that SNAs play within schools.

One of my concerns is that we are seeing expansion of SNA numbers, which is extremely welcome, but we saw a retrenchment in 2011. That review was titled a value for money and policy review. We found the number of SNAs being cut because we began to perhaps more strictly define or implement criteria under which SNAs were employed in schools. One of the worries I have if we do not professionalise and put this career on a more solid professional footing is that we could lose people from our schools again.

I have reviewed some of the primary care needs. I know members of Fórsa will come before the committee and SNAs will speak about what they do in schools. To give a flavour of the work, I point out "administration of medicine". What a huge responsibility that is to put on somebody. There is also reference to assistance with toileting and general hygiene, including catheterisation. I have had SNAs contact me who feel that is a big request for somebody who really does not enjoy a great deal of security, either in terms of tenure or pay and conditions. There is also reference to assistance with moving and lifting children and the operation of hoists and equipment. Some of the duties we ask SNAs to carry out in our schools carry huge responsibility and are very onerous. There should be a reflection of that.

My time is short and I am using much of it. Will the Minister of State tell me more about the course being run out of UCD? Will she detail the intake and educational background of SNAs coming into the course. Fórsa has provided some figures about the level of qualifications within the SNA workforce but there is no detail as to whether these are specifically education-based. Who are the people turning up to this course? How long is the programme? We could compare or contrast different benchmarks in qualifications so where would I find myself with a course of this length?

Will the Minister of State provide some detail on what is included in the curriculum of the course? When the SNAs emerge from this course what will they have been trained in? Does this speak to our understanding of the role within schools?

It was the first national training programme for SNAs. It is a four-year contract. Some 3,500 SNAs will take part in it. The first cohort of 500 began in January 2021. I understand approximately 460 of those met the programme requirements in full. Some 900 have completed the programme since May of this year. In September, another 1,000 will commence. Recruitment has been under way to make sure we get that number of participants. The closing date for that was 9 May.

How long do they spend on the course?

It is more than ten months. They take part in six modules, which comprise inclusive education of children with special educational needs, language and communications, autism, medical and complex needs, promoting positive behaviour and self-regulation and professional development. Those are the different modules they study. Each module consists of six two-hour online sessions over a six-week period followed by two weeks of consolidation and tutorial support. I understand there is one tutor for every 56 pupils who take part. The feedback, particularly from the first cohort, is included in one of the reports the Department is considering vis-à-vis moving on to accreditation. The feedback, overall, has been extremely positive. I hope SNAs see it as being something positive for them and that we can do more of it into the future.

Does the Minister of State have any information on the intake? What are the minimum criteria for people signing up to the course and how many people exceed it?

I do not have that detail. The only detail I have is that 460 of the first cohort of 500 SNAs completed the programme in full. All that detail is in the report that the officials are currently considering. More than 42% of them have more than ten years’ experience in the role, a further 44% have between three and ten years' experience, with the remaining 14% reporting less than two years' experience.

I thank the Minister of State and her officials for coming before the committee. We should re-emphasise the establishment of the SNA has probably been one of the most significant political achievements of the past 25 years. It shows the commitment of the political system to having an inclusive educational system. What concerns me when I hear other committee colleagues talk of how SNAs may be undervalued within a school is not so much the treatment of the SNAs, although that is important, but it signifies the school in question undervalues the children with special needs. That is why it is very important we introduce policies to ensure SNAs are treated equally and respectfully.

The committee is particularly interested in two issues and, in fairness, the Minister of State has dealt with them. One is the system of accreditation and the other is the raising of the minimum essential qualifications for SNAs. I am aware of the Minister of State's views but is there a hesitancy within the Department or elsewhere in government to the introduction of these measures, whether it is accreditation or the increase in essential qualifications, because it will necessarily or probably increase costs? What is her honest assessment of that?

I do not believe that is the case. There is an SNA industrial relations forum. The system and Departments will follow through on the normal processes available to them. The Deputy is a lawyer and he understands due process sometimes that has to take place. It provides a structured process to manage any industrial relations issues that arise in this particular sector.

It is a dedicated channel so that Fórsa and other can raise matters and issues of concern. The Building Momentum agreement is currently in place and will be in existence until the end of 2022. At this point, pay and workplace reform measures for public servants have been governed by a framework for many years.

I mentioned earlier that at one point Fórsa availed of sectoral bargaining. That was to apply an increase of 1,100 current long-service increments in pay in order to raise the maximum pay level for an SNA. There is not a reluctance on behalf of the Department. It also knows my views on this. It is my understanding that that review will be completed this year. The preference is for the Department to review the SNA contract first, and then we will look at the minimum qualifications. As well as this, separate conversations are happening with University College Dublin, UCD. We hope to have that and the accreditation resolved as soon as possible.

I apologise for trying to tie this down, but on the issue of a timeline for accreditation, does the Minister of State think that she and her Department will be able to make a decision this year?

That is my expectation. I can never guarantee anything, but I am expecting that. I hope that will be done in early course.

When does the Minister think that we will get certainty on minimum essential qualifications for SNAs?

I think that they should both be done around the same time, which will hopefully be this year.

I call Deputy Conway-Walsh, who will be followed by Senator Pauline O'Reilly.

At the outset, I want to thank the Minister of State for meeting with the families who were impacted by the valproate scandal last year. Their educational needs are enormously important. They have made the Minister of State aware of the shortcomings of the stakeholders group and what needs to be done there. It is my hope that we will have an agreement on the terms of reference for the inquiry this week. Those children have been failed over and over again.

I want to raise the issue of accreditation with the Minister of State. I would argue that no review is needed. The fact that training is not accredited should be addressed immediately. At the time, the decision to deliver the course through UCD struck me as an unusual approach. I say this because to my understanding UCD as a university is not able to offer courses that will potentially lead to accreditation below a level 8. UCD no doubt has the expertise to deliver the high-quality training programmes. It had to deliver a lot in its development of the content of the course. Yet, the delivery is a separate question.

I raised this issue with the Minister of State in the past, after the first intake of the SNAs onto the training course. She informed me that a public procurement competition was held and that accreditation by the national framework of qualifications, NFQ, was not a requirement. This strikes me as a substantial oversight. This is despite the fact that one of the key recommendations in the 2018 review by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, was for the training programme to be introduced at a minimum of a level 5 on the national framework of qualifications. The Government even addressed the issue of formal qualifications in the terms of reference of the review. What was the rationale for not including accreditation in the procurement process that was won by UCD? Is UCD able to offer accreditation at level 5 or level 6 that would be appropriate? Does the Minister of State believe that this can be worked around, or is it necessary to deliver the training of SNAs in a different setting? Has that been addressed? Is the current agreement with UCD a barrier to providing the training where the accreditation could be offered? There will be 1,000 SNAs going through the ten-month programme in September. We need to look at all options that are available in order to attach an accreditation to the course before then. Can the Minister of State let us know what exactly is being done?

I am aware that it does not fall directly within the brief of the Minister of State since the establishment of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, but I want to raise with her the issue of personal assistants in the further education system. They do a similar job to SNAs. However, their employment terms are far worse. They have no pension or pay scale and have to sign on every summer. I urge the Minister of State to support-----

I was strict with other members. I ask the Deputy to stick to the issue we are on.

I know this does not come under the remit of the Minister of State.

We will deal with that at another time, but we only have one hour.

With regard to personal assistants, I will bring that to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Harris.

I thank the Minister of State; I appreciate that.

UCD can offer accreditation. As I said, that is currently under review. The Deputy is correct. There was a procurement process and the contract was awarded to UCD in the first instance. There was a public procurement competition. The outcomes are being reviewed by the Department, with a view to seeing what further training programmes we can introduce. It is important to emphasise that this is the first one that has ever been done in UCD. That does not mean we cannot have training programmes in other universities or further and higher education venues. The NCSE recommended that it be at level 5 of the national qualifications framework, which is what the training does. The outcomes in terms of accreditation are being examined. As I said, there is an ongoing conversation, which I do not want to jeopardise, with UCD around accreditation. That is at an intense stage.

There is no impediment. Nothing would bar-----

There is no impediment.

-----UCD from doing the accreditation for that level.

There is no impediment.

I think the Minister of State has understood from everyone here today that the accreditation is important.

A contract was not going to be awarded to a higher level body that would not have been in a position to offer accreditation down the line, if that was something that would be deemed appropriate for SNAs.

I have one question and I will then go back to members. I refer to the role of the SNA in the move from primary into secondary school. Does the responsibility change? There is a major change in moving from a primary to a secondary school setting. How does the qualification come into play in that regard? What percentage of pupils retain their SNA when moving from primary to secondary school?

The qualifications do not change, in essence. It is up to a school as to how to deploy a particular SNA allocation. An SNA is not designated to a particular child; rather, he or she is designated to a particular class, whether a special or mainstream class, with a view to the children developing independent living skills. The children in primary school can, understandably, become quite attached to their SNA. That can happen in post-primary, and again that depends on the level of need of a child. The role of an SNA is as important in post-primary as primary schools. The qualification does not necessarily change. Whether the same SNA works in a primary or post-primary school depends on his or her contract and whether he or she is moving or changing roles or was on a panel at some point.

It was explained to me that the Department still, in effect, views the SNA role as a scheme, rather than as something more permanent. Can the Minister of State speak to that? If it is the case, which I believe it is, that needs to be changed.

It is still called a scheme because the circulars are still relevant and appropriate. I refer to Circular 0030/2014 and Circular 0030/2020. The scheme was put in place in the first instance for a minority of students, as the Deputy knows, who had significant care requirements and who would not be able to attend school without their SNA to give them additional support. As I said in reply to the Chairman, it was with a view to developing independent living skills. It was originally called a scheme. That circular is still in place. If the name was to change, a new circular would have to be drafted and sent to schools. That is something that could be considered. I am not sure whether people have an objection to the word "scheme".

If they do, perhaps that is something we could be informed of and then we could revisit it.

I thank the Minister of State for her contribution over this hour. She mentioned training in UCD and I wanted to follow up. Her opening statement referred to 80 hours of teaching and written assessments. That is a significant commitment. Approximately 500 people have done the course to date and another 1,000 are starting in September. Does the Minister of State believe this course could be rolled out to any other colleges around the country, if we are going to roll it out to the 19,000 SNAs? Does she have any thoughts on that?

It is a good point. As I said in reply to Deputy Conway-Walsh, it is my view, not necessarily the Department's view, that since this is the first training programme in UCD, I do not see what barriers there would be to have that training programme for SNAs in other parts of the country in the future in different universities and higher and further education facilities. As the Deputy said, this provides for 3,500 and there are 19,000. However, some of them can avail of the UCD course, which is online. Anyone, wherever they are located, can access it online. Certainly if there was an appetite for a similar type of programme, now that the precedent and the model has been set, it is something that could be looked at.

Especially with the ETBs and a link in with technological universities across the country, it could be good.

That issue of it being a scheme is of central importance. It goes to security of tenure. SNAs are often watching for care needs within their schools. As the care need graduates to secondary school or beyond, the job within the primary school evaporates. The Minister of State might comment on that. There is a need to establish it as a profession. It is about professionalism. There is a need to give security for people working within schools. They are not on a scheme. They should be employees within a school and within our education system. They should be able to plan a career that way. Does the Minister have a view on that?

It was originally called the SNA scheme. It is enshrined to a certain extent or set out in that circular, which is still appropriate, still exists and is still relevant and applicable. It can be looked at again. We have moved on a lot since that circular was originally issued. I am open to listening to the views of SNAs themselves because they are the assistants. If they feel that having that adjunct word, "scheme", is not appropriate for them, it is something that could be looked at. All those issues can be raised through the industrial relations forum anyway, where there is an opportunity for Fórsa and other unions to discuss the issues they have for SNAs and represent them. If there is an objection to that, it can certainly be looked at.

In response to me earlier, the Minister of State identified that the review of the SNA contract would start this year. She said the review would take place and be implemented. I still have a concern that it could take some time, not only for the review to take place but for it to be implemented as well. Leaving that to one side, she said there could be a concurrent process.

As well as reviewing and implementing the contract there is a process for minimum qualifications. Will the Minister of State tell us more about that process?

As I said to in reply to the Deputy's colleague, Deputy Conway-Walsh, there is a separate ongoing conversation with UCD, the detail of which would not be appropriate to air before the committee today. It is an ongoing conversation and it is important both sides have the opportunity to speak freely and without interference from me. I am satisfied it is a very worthwhile exercise and something appropriate from the reports received from UCD on the SNA online training course. It will ultimately be helpful to SNAs.

I have heard that response but as they are related, I hope there is no danger of conflating the accreditation and minimum qualification. There is a piece of work with UCD separate from the accreditation.

It is separate. It is around minimum qualifications.

I thank the Minister of State.

I do not have any further questions. The accreditation needs to be there as soon as possible and it should have been there from the beginning. The commitments have been made by the Minister of State today on pathways, having the accreditation, widening to the rest of the country and having a review. I hope that will be a 360-degree evaluation and the families with which SNAs are working are spoken to as well etc. We have made steps forward with this and I look forward to updates as we go along. There is also the question of remuneration, which must go with the extra qualifications as well. I thank the Minister of State.

I thank the Minister of State and her officials for coming before the committee today. It has been a productive discussion.

The joint committee went into private session at 12.03 p.m. and resumed in public session at 12.14 p.m.

I welcome to the meeting: Mr. Andy Pike, the national secretary of Fórsa; Ms Noreen O'Mahony, chair of Fórsa education executive, and special needs assistant, SNA, in a special school; Mr. Shane Lambert, Fórsa assistant secretary for schools; Ms Catriona Galster, SNA working in a special class; Ms Niamh Jordan, SNA working in a mainstream class; and Ms Linda O'Sullivan, SNA working in a special class.

I will ask Mr. Pike to give a five minute presentation, I will ask for two minutes from Ms Galster, Ms Jordan and Ms O'Sullivan.

Mr. Andy Pike

I thank the Chairman for the invitation to address the committee this afternoon. We welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue of the minimum essential qualifications required to become an SNA.

All occupations are to a great extent defined and perceived according to the qualifications required to enter that particular workforce. The required essential qualification for SNAs has not been reviewed or changed since 1979.

Our delegation includes SNAs who are best placed to inform the committee of the reality of the work carried out by SNAs in our schools for thousands of students who rely on their SNA to complete their education alongside their friends and peers. Once I have concluded this opening statement, the four SNAs before the committee can explain the reality of their daily working life in different school settings. We hope this will provide a valuable insight for them into the complex role of our SNAs.

The development of the role of the SNA started in 1979 when the then Minister for Education, John Wilson, established the child care assistant scheme. In 1979, the focus was on labour market activation, encouraging women to re-enter the workforce in a caring role to assist students with special educational needs in schools. The entry requirements were set at three D-grade passes in the then junior certificate. It is likely the qualification bar was set at this level to facilitate women entering the workforce, regardless of educational background or achievement. While this initiative was the first tentative step along the developmental pathway our SNAs have followed since, it was perhaps unfortunate the initiative was described as a scheme. In 2022, 43 years later, the categorisation of SNA support as a statutory scheme is still in place. This description reflects the perceptions of some that our SNAs are carrying out menial work where no formal educational achievement is required to carry out the role. It implies precarious employment, which is still a problem, and the use of the term is derogatory and demoralising for SNAs.

In the early years of the 21st century, we saw an unprecedented growth in the number of students with special educational needs in schools and an expansion in the number of SNAs. In 1999, there were 300 SNAs. By 2004, that number had increased to 5,800 and in 2022, provision has been made for 19,000 SNA posts. However, the minimum essential qualification has still not been reviewed, changed or modernised.

Fórsa is not alone in asking for a review of the qualification. The list of stakeholders who believe the time has come to change the status quo includes management bodies, the Irish Primary Principals' Network, IPPN, the teaching unions, the Second-Level Students' Union, a range of academic experts and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. All of us believe the role of the SNA has developed to the extent that a new qualification to enter the workforce is required.

It is important to examine the level of academic achievements of the existing SNA workforce before forming a firm opinion on future requirements. In 2015, the National University of Ireland, Galway, published research on the training needs of special needs assistants in the Border, midland and western Region. This research highlighted that from 2012 onwards, the NCSE had been calling for mandatory training for SNAs. NUIG recommended that a level 7 qualification become mandatory for SNAs, leading to a level 8 qualification to be obtained during employment through career development. It has announced that such a programme will continue to be available during the next academic year. Fórsa recently surveyed more than 4,000 SNA members on the level of their educational qualifications. Approximately 80% of respondents stated they held qualifications at Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, level 5 or above.

The NCSE's Comprehensive Review of the Special Needs Assistant Scheme, which was published in 2018, found that SNAs were in many instances expected to meet more complex needs without any training, qualifications or clinical oversight. It recommended that this work, along with the desired greater focus on the provision of therapies and building social skills, should only be carried out by trained staff who had benefited from an educational programme set at least at QQI level 5. In response to the NCSE review, the Department consulted Fórsa on the development of the first national SNA training programme. The programme was delivered by the UCD school of education. Despite the first cohort of 500 students completing the programme in February 2022, the course remains unaccredited. SNAs completed this complex programme, consisting of 80 hours of teaching with written assessments, without any academic recognition of their achievements.

In April 2021, UCD published its preliminary evaluation report following completion of module 1 of the programme. The data, which are set out in this opening statement, show that at the start of the programme 98% of students had already progressed beyond the minimum qualification stipulated by the Department of Education and that 62% of the students had already progressed to a level 6 QQI qualification or higher award. Recently, the Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion indicated to Fórsa she was open to considering the accreditation of the programme. Until today, we had not been informed of further developments. Perhaps we might discuss the Minister of State's comments later in the session.

In summary, the role of our SNAs should not be described as a scheme nor should they be described as a vocational workforce who do not need professional standards. The role of the SNA is somewhat unique in that it covers both the health and educational needs of young people. During the pandemic attempts were made to redeploy SNAs into the health sector. It is abundantly clear the HSE would never agree to employ someone to carry out the range of complex duties required of an SNA in a healthcare setting when the limit of the required educational achievement is set at only 3 D level passes in the junior certificate. The labour market implications of revising the qualification can be managed through a transition process lasting several years. Conferring a more professional status would make the role of the SNA a more attractive career option.

The committee will hear this afternoon that we have yet to find a school that does not state in an SNA job advertisement that a qualification at a level much higher than the minimum is not desirable. The expectations of parents and students also matter. The parents of a child with additional needs want their SNA to form a bond and to be empathetic and caring. They also have an expectation that the SNA has appropriate education and training to meet the needs of their child. Finally our request and pending claim with the Department is for an expert review of the minimum SNA qualification with agreed terms of reference and a commitment from the Minister to implement the recommendations. SNAs have been waiting a long time to have their say. They have been waiting for 43 years for proper recognition, which simply will not be achieved without a change to the minimum essential qualification.

Ms Noreen O'Mahony

I have been a SNA in a special school for the past 15 years and I love my job. Every day it can be vastly different and it always keeps us on our toes. Over my time there I have worked with wonderful children who have additional needs but no matter what challenges some of the children may face, our school community is committed to keeping the needs of each child at the centre of all that we do. That is why in our school, and in schools throughout the country, SNAs cater for much more than care needs on a day-to-day basis. We help to carry out speech and language, occupational therapy and physiotherapy programmes. We help the children to access the curriculum through resources, games and extra help. We help with programmes such as Literacy Lift Off, Edmark and many others. We support children emotionally and partake in positive behaviour sports strategies. We work together as a team to ensure that all our children receive an excellent education and to help them reach their full potential. We can do this because we are supported by the school to partake in learning opportunities and accredited courses that will support and enhance the lives and education of those children with whom we work. Our school is not unique. SNAs throughout the country are highly skilled professionals but we need the Department of Education to recognise this and raise the entry qualifications so that this is the standard across all schools in Ireland because every child deserves to have access to professional and qualified staff.

Ms Catriona Galster

We need to raise the qualification requirements for SNAs. As Mr. Pike said, 43 years ago the educational standard to become an SNA was three grade Ds at group or intermediate certificate level. By the 1990s, a movement was growing towards having children with additional educational needs integrated into mainstream schools. Today, there are 19,000 SNAs. In 2018, there were about 930,000 students in primary and secondary schools, of whom one in four had an additional educational need. This is 230,000 students. We ask the Department to stop referring to these 19,000 employees as a "scheme" or to SNAs as "SNA resources". We are an integral part of the education system. Inclusion for all students is a stated ambition of the school inclusion model and we expect to grow in number and expertise in the years to come. The range of conditions for which SNAs are employed is great and includes complex medical, physical, sensory, cognitive, social, communication, behavioural and neurological conditions. Some of the conditions include autism, Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, diabetes, visual and auditory impairment, cystic fibrosis and fragile x. The list goes on and it is not exhaustive.

For SNAs to provide the support that students in their care need then they must have a comprehensive understanding of complex conditions. For the successful inclusion of these students, they must have the necessary skills to support them.

SNAs in many schools are very far from being respected. This is largely due to the perception that they do not have a high level of education. It is entirely unacceptable for the Department of Education to persist with this assertion that the current academic standard of three Grade Ds is sufficient to work as an SNA. It is nothing short of insulting to the students that the Department deems it unnecessary for SNAs to have a qualification that reflects the level of care and support required for these students to succeed in school. The Department is fully aware of this and allows a situation to prevail where it does not have to acknowledge the academic standards required to meet the needs of the students with additional educational needs while at the same time knowing that schools will only employ SNAs who have relevant qualifications. This is a very disingenuous position for the Department to hold.

It is long past time for the educational standards to be revised upwards. SNAs have always known this. Teachers and principals know this too. Parents and students deserve it. Finally, the Department also knows it and has done for a long time. The Minister for Education, and the Minister of State who has responsibility for special education and inclusion, both need to do the right thing. Raise the minimum qualification and show SNAs the respect that they have deserved for so long.

Ms Niamh Jordan

I have been an SNA for 22 years in a mainstream school. I am based in a nurture room, which was introduced in September 2021. The nurture room is a short-term focused intervention for children with particularl social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. We address the children's needs and prevent exclusion from the classroom, and any distress caused by them not having the coping skills through no fault of their own. I work alongside the teacher and assist her with modelling self-regulation skills, co-operative play and promoting self-esteem.

The zones of regulation are used daily in our room and they are an important tool for all children. From time to time all of us find it hard to manage strong feelings such as worry, anger, restlessness, fear or tiredness, which stops us from getting on with our day. My daily routine differs every day and depends on the zone the child is in when they arrive. The nurture room is a safe place where children are given the freedom to express themselves. I celebrate their achievements every day no matter how small that might seem. When someone tells us that we have done a good job then that makes us feel positive about ourselves, which is what nurture is all about.

To help the children self-regulate I start the day with Braincalm. I do Braincalm Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. with three groups of three pupils who are aged between seven years and ten years. The Braincalm programme is for children with sensory issues, ASD, ADHD, anxiety and behavioural issues. We complete 20 minutes a day of a variety of therapy-based and fun activities to help children become calm, organise their brains and return to their classroom calm, focused, alert and ready to learn. Although Braincalm is not a replacement for therapy it gives parents and school staff a programme to help the child while he or she is on the waiting for therapy or as an add-on to therapy received outside the school.

Ms Linda O'Sullivan

I am an SNA in an early intervention special class in a primary school. My day begins with bringing children into the room for Aistear and free play. After speaking to the parents at the school gate I am aware of issues that might trigger their children during the day such as poor sleep or behaviours. After this, we bring the children to the sensory room. Depending on the children, my colleagues and I may offer to separate the best care possible to meet the high needs of the children. We meet back in the classroom and do one-to-one work with them, which varies depending on the individual needs that range between general assistance to accessing the curriculum. We then move to the occupational therapy room where the children do a variety of exercises. We break for lunch and the first period of assisting with yard duty. The SNAs then attend to the care needs of the children before we start our next activities, which in general are sensory play and music. We break for lunch and the second period of assisting with yard duty before home time.

I wish to mention that this is a very brief synopsis of my regular day in so much as there is a regular day. Given the complex needs of the children with whom we work, it should be noted that the work which I and the others undertake is very much dependent on what the children need at any given time throughout the day. The work and duties undertaken by special needs assistants have drifted far beyond the needs outlined in circular 30/2014, the contract of employment and the other circulars that govern these jobs. There is an assumption, and a fostered idea, by the Department of Education re the low educational qualification for entry into our occupation. Please note that it is not classed as a profession, which is a situation that belies the complexity, skills and training needed to do our jobs.

First, Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire has five minutes in which to ask questions and hear replies. I urge everyone to watch the clock and indicate to me if they wish to comment.

I thank everyone for coming in. They deserve huge credit for the campaign they have run that has brought them this far. Most people in this room and many of our colleagues have been contacted by SNAs in their local areas too. The principles behind the campaign have been very well articulated. I think the committee is united in trying to bring our pressure to bear to try and get this moved along. It has been well articulated over the past hour. From when the role began the scale, scope and complexity of what an SNA has to do has increased maybe 20-fold or however much you care to state. For instance, Deputy Ó Cathasaigh gave the example of administering medical assistance. These are very significant roles.

I will direct my first question to Mr. Pike and Ms O'Mahony but also to anyone else who wants to take it. It may be a bit boring but process cuts to the heart of the matter. The Minister and the Minister of State say that we must do the review of the contract first. We must implement that. How long will it take not only to review but also to implement? Will people explain in their own words why that is the wrong approach for the review to take place before a review of the qualifications?

Mr. Andy Pike

There are many aspects of the 2005 contract that need to be reviewed, updated and changed. We hope that work will start shortly. It is well behind schedule. It will not be easy because you cannot negotiate a national contract for a staff group in the public sector without specifying what qualification you need to do the job. In our list of things that need to be negotiated in and around the contract, no. 1 is what qualification a person needs to do the job. If the Department of Education is taking a view that it will not discuss the qualification until after the contract talks are over then I am sorry to inform them that the contract talks will include a negotiation on the qualification or otherwise those negotiations will fail and there will be a failure to agree.

If Fórsa was content with that approach, and I accept very clearly that it is not, how long would it take if the review of the minimum qualifications was put on ice and the review of the contract and its implementation had to be completed before that?

Mr. Andy Pike

The Department of Education can be glacial in its pace so I would not expect much progress in three months once negotiations start. If I looked back to how long it took to negotiate the agreement on school secretaries, we could be back here in a year's time and talks about a new SNA contract could still be ongoing. I could be wrong and it could take six months but I do not see it as being a quick process.

I will also put those questions to Ms O'Mahony or anyone else who wishes to take them. I do not want to put words in their mouth but is there an element of the Department kicking the can down the road?

Ms Noreen O'Mahony

Yes, I think there is. The Deputy said it best when he described it as putting the cart before the horse. It simply is that. You need to resolve the entry qualification first before you do the contract review.

It is like anyone going into a job without a job spec.

Ms Noreen O'Mahony


How can you negotiate a contract without knowing what the contract underpins? Does anyone else want to respond in the short time I have left?

Mr. Shane Lambert

If you think about designing a contract for any employment model in the country you start off by establishing what is the level of responsibility. Generally the level of responsibility is dictated on the level of competency you need to do the job and everything else stems from that. That is how you design a contract of any type of role. It really is putting the cart before the horse. What we seek is to reflect the current practice that is already in existence. There is not a school in the country that does not seek to hire the best qualified staff that they can in a recruitment process, and no one could fault them. They are doing that year in year out at levels far above the current minimum qualification.

This needs to be tied up and rectified. Then we can look at issues such as a contract review. There is no need for it to be linked to a contract review. It is a separate stand-alone issue. We are looking to reflect current practice with employers at present.

I thank all the witnesses for their evidence. Something I find strange from an educational perspective is commencing a course without formal accreditation being sorted in advance. Any learner entering a course should know the level of accreditation. I am entirely in agreement with the witnesses on many of their concerns and I hope this matter is expedited. I share the concerns of colleagues regarding the treatment of SNAs. No SNA deserves to be mistreated. The witnesses heard the discussion earlier. I believe the overwhelming majority of schools treat their SNAs with respect. To refer to my earlier question, there should be a specific focus on the special educational needs of the child or young person. If possible, will the witnesses quantify the proportion of schools they believe may not treat SNAs with respect? Are there very specific concerns they have about the way they are treated by certain schools that they hope will be addressed in the contractual negotiations?

Mr. Andy Pike

There are numerous examples of the contract providing an opportunity for schools to direct SNAs to non-appropriate work such as cleaning, administration, covering books or photocopying, let alone the problems that arise in secondary and post-primary schools where some SNAs are required to be present in June when the students are not. This gives rise to a lot of discontent and a lot of menial work being allocated. We have a situation where half of schools have realised they need to be a little more respectful towards SNAs but we still have a job to do as a union to persuade the other half of the sector to follow suit. We do not run a survey because if we did, the number of people complaining that they are not respected would be pretty high. Going on the complaints that come through to the union office, we are looking at approximately half and half. Perhaps that is being a bit optimistic. The specific focus we want SNAs to have is on students with additional educational needs and the complex needs the committee has heard about. When we hear the Department and the NCSE mention that SNAs could be an all-school resource we worry that the message going to principals means they could be allocated work that has nothing to do with meeting the needs of students with additional educational needs. Ms O'Sullivan will speak about the UCD course and accreditation.

Ms Linda O'Sullivan

I was one of the first 500 SNAs on the course and we met Senator Byrne on Zoom. It was a ten-month course with five modules, as the Minister of State outlined earlier. What she did not speak about were the statistics from the first 500. According to a survey conducted by UCD, 2.14% of the 500 SNAs are working with the minimum educational requirement. This represents those who attained three grade Ds in the junior certificate. A total of 60% work with QQI levels 5 and 6. SNAs are highly skilled professional workers. It quite insulting to suggest that a course run in conjunction with the Department of Education would not be accredited. The 500 SNAs who started the course believed it would be accredited. Having graduated from UCD in February, it is simply not good enough to find it is not accredited. A total of €2.4 million was invested by the Department in the course. It is free for the students and we have heard time and again from the Department how grateful we should be. We are grateful for the training but it most certainly was not free from the Department.

In its review, the NCSE recommended that a training programme be introduced at level 5 on the national framework of qualifications.

Therefore, to think of UCD having to run a course with no formal accreditation undermines the recommendation. A UCD communications office spokesperson stated that the programme is being delivered at a level of contents, assessment, and governance that will meet accreditation criteria of the programme, if subjected to such criteria. UCD has been very supportive. Many Deputies and Senators have been very supportive of the cause. It was great to hear the Minister say it in April, but we are very aware that we are going towards the end of June and there is no end in sight in relation to the accreditation. Some 500 SNAs have completed and graduated. The next cohort will graduate in October. Before anyone else gets onto that course, we need to see formal accreditation given.

I thank all of our witnesses for coming here today, as well as attending as observers in our previous session with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. I very much appreciate what the witnesses have outlined in that, in other words, we need sort of a minimum qualification for SNAs in our sector. You would see something similar even in the healthcare assistant side, where the level 5 Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, would be very important.

Ms O’Sullivan mentioned that she just did the course. She is an SNA and she did the first course through UCD. There seems to be a certificate that is provided through the course. I am presuming that all students who have completed the course would have received a certificate-----

Ms Linda O'Sullivan


-----so that if anything changes in the future, you would hope it would apply to students who have also recently completed the course. Does Ms O’Sullivan have any feedback? I am just curious about the course itself. My earlier questions were around rolling this out, perhaps across other colleges in the country. I am curious about the online elements of that. Would there be any sort of idea of a hybrid type course?

I thank Mr. Pike and Ms O’Mahony for their submission and opening statement. I would know many SNAs and I have family members who work as SNAs as well. I have always seen, and what I have heard anecdotally, that it is very much a team environment. From what I have heard, you would very much see that teachers are working with SNAs. To be honest, everybody wants to have a classroom where children are working to their potential and are being looked after, especially if they have significant care needs. Would Mr. Pike or Ms O’Mahony have any guidance in terms of SNAs working within particular schools? Do SNAs engage with the school board or in staff meetings? Are there representatives of SNAs on these groups as well? It is just that this cohort has now grown larger. As we heard from the Minister of State, there has been an 80% increase and more than 25% of the Department of Education’s budget has been spent on children with special needs this year. Can Mr. Pike or Ms O'Mahony give an example of how they would see it working in a school?

Mr. Andy Pike

I thank the Senator for her question. In a good school, SNAs are involved in staff meetings and are seen as part of a team wherever students with additional educational needs are studying. It can often be a multidisciplinary team because of the inputs necessary from allied health professions and others. In a good school, there is very much a team ethos where everyone is valued. However, in a school that is perhaps not quite so good, that is where we find the terms and conditions for SNAs militate against the SNA being respected, included or considered as a part of the team. That is part of the problem with the qualification. In the school, the teachers are all educated to a minimum of level 8, yet there is a huge disparity in the educational requirement for SNAs. Historically, from the start of the childcare assistants scheme, SNAs were seen as unskilled labour. That is still a problem that we see in a school that is not as good.

I apologise for interrupting. I suppose the training that has been rolled out would be a way for all SNAs across the board to sort of get that additional experience perhaps and some of the elements and modules that were mentioned last time as well just around the needs. Some of the people here have identified all of the work that is done around healthcare needs and professional development.

Mr. Andy Pike

The UCD programme is excellent and very thorough.

Regarding it being accredited, the tender specified that the provider had to design a course capable of accreditation should the Department take a decision to seek the same. Therefore, the mechanism is there. I would have thought this course is at level 7 or 8 in respect of the level of demand placed on students.

I thank Mr. Pike. I ask Ms O'Sullivan and Ms O'Mahony to comment on this matter, if there is time remaining.

Ms Linda O'Sullivan

As the Senator said, the modules were inclusion, language and communications and supporting students with autism. To be honest, the course was world-class. Out of all the courses I have undertaken during my career as an SNA, I put UCD's course above any of the others. Another point is that the last module we did was the professional development of SNAs, which was ironic because during all the time we were studying on the course, for some ten months, we were still not being recognised as students on a course that was worthy of a QQI award. Therefore, I certainly recommend the course, but based on the Minister or Minister of State finally accrediting it and giving the course the recognition it deserves. I cannot thank UCD enough for providing it. I have never heard any SNAs speak badly of the course. It is needed, and needed across every school and for every SNA, but, again, we can only recommend that SNAs do this course if it gets accredited and receives the recognition it deserves.

It is also important to get it rolled out as quickly as possible across the country.

As I said and has been repeated since, I congratulate Fórsa and the individual SNAs who have brought this conversation to heart of the Oireachtas and demanded responses from everybody in the Oireachtas, from every political party, from every political entity and from the Minister and the Minister of State as well. This is to their credit.

The opening remarks placed great emphasis on the classification of the SNA role as being part of a scheme. I had previous conversations with Ms O’Sullivan in meetings about this issue. It is front and centre as part of the problem. While the Minister of State gave a level of comfort regarding the work that is ongoing to deal with the essential accreditation we spoke about and the basic requirements, I was a bit taken aback by her apparent surprise that the classification of the role as a scheme was problematic. She said that it was dealt with by circular, as if circulars cannot change, evolve or be reissued. Therefore, the emphasis the SNAs have placed on this scheme, when compared with the response from the Minister of State, is the biggest thing I took away from this session.

I ask Mr. Pike and Ms O’Sullivan to flesh out the issue concerning the scheme and its classification. Regarding my comments around the late date for the allocation of SNAs, namely, 31 May, the issue of CPD that teachers get but SNAs do not, July provision, the different rates of pay and the individual stories in schools, that we also know about, do all these issues lead back to the lack of certainty found in these roles and to the lack of respect for them? It is not difficult to ask a school to respect an SNA, but it is hypocritical of the Department to demand respect for SNAs if it is not respecting the people in these roles itself.

Mr. Andy Pike

The problem with the description or designation of the service provided to the students as a statutory scheme is that it implies and signifies impermanence. This is the case for the students because over the years the scheme has resulted in SNA supports being withdrawn from students. The parents have appealed, but the exceptional review process has a success rate that is very low in respect of the overall number of appeals submitted. The impermanence for the SNAs themselves stems from this being insecure and precarious employment. The people in these roles do not know from year to year if they will have a job. We were hoping that a new front-loading approach, which would give at least three years of certainty, would be introduced, with negotiation and agreement, at some stage, and potentially this year. Apparently, this cannot now happen and SNAs are therefore still in a quandary. They are part of a scheme where resources can be provided and then taken away. Where an SNA post is lost, there is no redeployment mechanism. There is a redundancy scheme, but there is no right to keep a post. Almost uniquely among our 350,000 public servants, therefore, we have this group of SNAs in insecure, impermanent and precarious employment.

I turn now to the July provision and the interesting issues the Deputy raised in this regard.

I will hand over presently to my colleague, Ms O'Mahony, to speak further on this. The late allocations should not be happening. We should not be waiting until 31 May for 18,000 SNAs to find out whether they have job. That is a very disrespectful way to treat not just a few people but the entire workforce. We must find a better way of handling it next year. It would be different if there were a redeployment scheme whereby someone who is losing a post in a school would have the certainty that as more posts are added to the system, there will be a job for him or her not too far away. We do not have that, however, and it is one of the reasons the current allocation model is so unsatisfactory.

Ms Noreen O'Mahony

The July provision has been offered for years in special schools and has always worked well. When the pandemic hit, SNAs were allowed to go into pupils' homes to work with them. However, we were told they were doing it for less than half the standard rate. This is not all about the money by any means. It is about SNAs doing the exact same job and parents all over the country finding it hard to get either teachers or SNAs. I do not think the July provision is working as a programme.

Will one of the SNA witnesses comment on the scheme and the insecurity they have spoken about when it comes to mortgage repayments, rent payments and so on? How can they have security in their lives if the job is so insecure from year to year?

Ms Linda O'Sullivan

We see the SNA role as a profession or vocation. The role has changed significantly in terms of what we do and the types of complex needs we are now seeing. When it comes to qualifications, there is a slight academic snobbery from the Department of Education because it has set the bar so low in terms of the minimum educational requirement for people to work in the SNA role. We see that time and again. Non-teaching staff in schools, including secretaries and SNAs, are treated as somehow less than in comparison with teachers. We deserve the same respect as our teaching colleagues and principals.

Regarding the insecure nature of the role, one example of this is having to wait until 31 May to find out whether we have a job. We have all heard about SNAs who have had to wait until that date before they can move to the next level in their lives, whether that is signing for a mortgage, planning a wedding or deciding to have a family. It just cannot continue like that. We are going to drive people out of the profession, which is what the role of SNA is. It is a profession we love and want to protect. We want to ensure the role gets better for SNAs across the country.

Ms O'Sullivan put her finger on it when she said the role of SNA is a profession. In fact, it is not; it is a job that is done under a scheme. How can people plan for a mortgage, starting a family, developing career pathways or anything like that when they are on a scheme rather than being enrolled in a profession?

I spent 15 years in a classroom and for approximately ten of those years, I had an SNA in the room with me. I will be killed stone dead if I do not remember all their names. There was Vicky, Kathleen, Sandra, Fionnuala, Ciara and Eileen but I am sure I have forgotten somebody. The very first year I taught after becoming qualified, I had an SNA in my classroom, but I was given no direction or education in terms of how to work with that person. As far as I was concerned, I had another educator inside the classroom but there was no guidance given to me on how I was to structure that person's working day. How the role of the SNA works in practice is very dependent on the relationship with the teacher. I will not ask the SNA witnesses to comment but I am sure they found their working situation changed from year to year as the teacher changed. Teachers are quite constrained in how they can make use of the talent of the person who is in the room with them and what they can ask that individual to do within the guidelines of the description of the job. If we really allowed SNAs to fulfil their role as professionals within the education system, we could derive a lot more benefit from the role.

I have a couple of specific questions for Mr. Pike on some of the statistics he gave us regarding the level of qualifications in the SNA workforce. He set out all the percentages but I wonder if we changed that to look at the percentage with an education qualification or something that is specific to what is happening in the classroom, would we see a significant change.

I was a little taken aback by what Mr. Pike said. A question I was going to put to him was where he thinks the UCD course would land in terms of accreditation. He said it was level 7 or level 8, which would be to a degree standard. Is he happy to stand over that in terms of the input? It is essential that we provide an accreditation but we have to make sure it is at the right level.

On a more general question, how does one choose to be an SNA at this point? What is the career pathway for new entrants? As a final comment, I am struck that all of the names I listed out are of women. I wonder what the percentage is across the workforce. The witnesses might be able to tell me what the gender breakdown is in total and in terms of new intake. I have a suspicion that if it was a predominantly male profession, the accreditation scenario would have been sorted out before now.

Mr. Andy Pike

Anyone watching will forgive the Deputy if he forgot one or two names. I can tell him he is not notorious among the people he used to work with, so one forgotten name will be forgiven.

I will ask Ms Galster to come in on the route to being an SNA and Ms Jordan can chip in around how people choose to be an SNA.

We think the UCD perspective on the value of its course is probably quite accurate. We would also say that moving from three D-grades in the old junior certificate straight to level 7 or level 8 would need some careful expert consideration. We pitched our claim to the Department at level 6 because we think that is a step up from where SNAs are at the moment in terms of the minimum essential qualifications, and it reflects the generality of the qualification that they hold in terms of an overall look at the sector.

As to managing the change, that would have to be done carefully. There are examples from the early years sector as to how that has happened and how it has been managed. We think it would turn the job into a viable career pathway, whereby people get training and get that piece of education done, and they would be better equipped to meet the needs of students in schools.

In terms of how people choose to be an SNA and the motivation, I will ask Ms Galster to comment.

Ms Catriona Galster

I was at home full-time with my children while they were growing up. I came in contact with an autistic child and I was completely fascinated by her and everything about her, so I did a course in the College of Progressive Education, which was an online course at the time, and I became an SNA in 2008. I have since studied a lot of courses, not just on autism, although that is my principal interest. I have also just completed the UCD course and I would back everything that Ms O’Sullivan said. It was an excellent course. I would love it if there was a pathway from that course on to doing a full degree. I agree with Mr. Pike that the level of education involved is probably level 7 or level 8, but maybe that would be a component part.

Having worked as an SNA, I feel the whole area of inclusion, on which the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, has a ministerial remit, does not just apply to the student body but also applies to the whole school community – principals, teachers, caretakers, SNAs and cleaners - and they are all entitled to feel they belong in the workplace. In order to belong and to feel connected to others, there must be mutual respect. There is no place for hierarchies. There is certainly no place for schools where a significant number of staff are made to feel they are very firmly at the bottom of the ladder and that is where they are going to stay, or that they are a resource to be used at the discretion of the principal in order to carry out a variety of inappropriate or meaningless tasks which have nothing to do with students. That is something I know drives SNAs crazy. Inclusion must encompass full understanding among staff and students of the different roles the staff members have and a greater respect for the need for all staff to work together in order for that inclusive school to prosper into the future. The whole area of inclusion is something we are probably only at the very beginning of, but it involves collaboration, not hierarchy.

I thank all of the witnesses for coming before the committee today. It is important we keep a focus on the reason we want to see accreditation and minimum qualifications, which is the importance of the role SNAs play in the education and development of children. I do not look on this from the point of view of SNAs as individuals but on the importance of the child who is so dependent upon them.

Where do Ms Galster or Ms Jordan they think the children to whom they provide care and education would be if they did not have an SNA? Would they be able to stay within mainstream schools and what would be the missing part in their educational day if they did not have an SNA?

Ms Catriona Galster

The children I work with are of preschool age, and while they are attached to a mainstream primary school, they are in an autism classroom. They move on to special classes and special schools and often to mainstream schools. Most of the children at that age would not be in a regular preschool because they just would not be able to cope. What we do is essential to get them on the path to a full education. It is not enough for the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to say we are there to increase the independent living skills of children in schools. That is not what we are there to do. We are there to help them to access the education they are entitled to by constitutional right.

Many of our students will go on to have successful and independent lives, to have jobs and to succeed. In the absence of SNAs being there to support them, they would be back where they were in 1979 or prior to it, which is not being educated at all or being put into special schools.

What is Ms Jordan's assessment of where here students would be?

Ms Niamh Jordan

I agree with Ms Galster that the children would not be able to be in a mainstream school and would be based in special schools. The majority of the children in my school are well able to be in my school with the assistance of an SNA. Without that assistance, it would not be possible. Especially now with Covid-19 and all that has happened, we find our children need this assistance more so, and it is not only special needs children but all children who need this assistance. You could actually have an SNA in nearly every classroom to enable the children to avail of that assistance. Without it, I do not think it would work.

Ms Linda O'Sullivan

The children cannot access the curriculum. I had the pleasure last night with some of the team here of speaking to Involve Autism, which has done phenomenal work for its children and the children in Dublin 6W. This group said that, without the support of SNAs, its children would not have got through mainstream education. We hear time and again reference to the circular on care needs. All of us in this room know we do far more than that and, without us, the children would not be able to access the curriculum or attend school. We saw that, as Ms Jordan mentioned, throughout Covid-19 and trying to work with these children through lockdowns.

The crux of the matter, and at times I feel the Department of Education forgets this, is that the reason we are here is for the children with whom we work. We want to give the best care possible to those children. All we want is for them to be able to come to school and be supported by an SNA. The respect element comes in when we are left time and again waiting to find out whether we have jobs and whether children have school places in September. Without our crucial role in a classroom, many children in this country would not have a school place, and that is a fact. Most parents, if not all, would back us on that.

From Ms O'Mahony's assessment as an SNA and with respect to the children for whom she is responsible, where would they be in their educational development if they did not have an SNA available to them?

Ms Noreen O'Mahony

I am in a special school and we work as part of a team. A Deputy said earlier that best practice is we all work together as part of a team. The children would not be able to do Literacy Lift Off, for example, because they have different stations in the classroom while this is going on. The extra bodies are needed in the classroom to do this, to break things down and to explain it. We do not teach but we help the children to access the curriculum and we help the teachers.

If a level 7 qualification is introduced, is that going to be inconvenient or problematic for SNAs who are there at present? How is that upskilling going to happen? Is it going to be a requirement?

Mr. Andy Pike

What we would want to see is a transition process. First there would need to be consultation with the sector and clarity around what the requirements are. An accredited qualification at level 7, if that is the level, would be a requirement for new SNAs. They would probably need two years' notice that if they want to come and work in a school as a SNA, they will have to obtain the qualification. For existing staff, there are two ways it can go. There could be credit for experience, which would mean they would not have to do the qualification. If the decision at the end of the day is that the existing workforce has to undertake a qualification, there are grandparenting arrangements and transitional processes in health and early years where the existing workforce has had to upskill over a period of time. There are examples we can follow. It would have to be introduced in a careful manner, in stages, with absolute clarity about what would be required and from whom.

Mr. Pike has covered my last question in his reply to Deputy O'Callaghan. Most of my questions have been covered. I thank the witnesses for their very valuable contributions. I am listening acutely to them. Are they assured by any of the things the Minister of State has said this morning? What were the positive things she has committed to or said? What most concerns the witnesses that she has left out or avoided?

Mr. Andy Pike

I will give a brief answer and then hand over to anyone else who has a view. The Minister of State was very fair in her comments to the committee. We welcome the commitment to discuss proactively and, I hope, pursue and obtain accreditation for the UCD course. We welcome her comments around the need to review the minimum essential qualification. The concerns we have are that getting the Department of Education to do anything is extremely difficult. The Department reflects the current academic snobbery that has been mentioned around SNAs. Because it is not a graduate profession, they do not worry about them. I accept the sentiments and bona fides of the Minister of State. The problem we are going to have is dragging the Department of Education into a space where it will actually deliver. That is the concern I have. Colleagues may have something to add.

Ms Noreen O'Mahony

The only concern I had was that the Minister of State referred to secondary care issues aside from primary care issues and said SNAs are there to assist schools. We are not there to assist schools. We are there to assist children with additional needs. They have to be kept front and centre in all of this.

Mr. Shane Lambert

There was a lot of comfort to be taken from many of the comments. As Mr. Pike said, the concern is the when, the time and how long this will take. To put it from the child's perspective, at the moment, the expectation any child can have when he or she accesses the curriculum and gets the support of an SNA is that the SNA would have three Ds in the junior certificate. That is the expectation. However, the reality on the ground, as shown in my examples, is that they are required to have FETAC level 5 or 6 and they must engage in continuing professional development, CPD. There are disparities with what is happening on the ground throughout the country. We need to standardise that. We need to look towards future-proofing the service. I do not need to labour the point. We know the evolution of special education from 1979 to now. It does not mean it stops here. This could be the beginning of something where we could lead the way and have a world-class service. We are not going to do that if we ponder too much over a minimum qualification when we know the reality on the ground is dramatically different from it.

To respond to a couple of things that were covered around the view of unskilled labour, we have had SNAs on to us in the past week who have been asked to clean fish tanks, clean out lockers, laminate things, mop floors and things like that. This has taken the SNAs away from the role they should have with the children. It breaks down goodwill in the school and damages relationships. A lot of that would be solved by putting in a minimum education qualification which would set the tone of respect they deserve.

While the vast majority of schools have very much come on board and have shown over the years that they have evolved and value their SNAs, this would eliminate the potential in those areas, which are minor but still create significant problems.

On the piece around continuous professional development, how can SNAs continuously develop and look to enhance their role and move with the times when there is no standard from which they are moving or that that standard is so low?

I thank Mr. Lambert. Ms Galster has said that she has a special interest in autism, in particular, and that she has done a great deal of training around that. She knows that in working with children and young people with autism that there are enormous skills in some places which go above and beyond what she, I, and others who are non-autistic students would be able to do. These students may have a specific flair for maths, for art or for other things. Does Ms Galster see in her role that potential being used? Is there a potential for an autistic child with a unique or specific talent to grow and to fulfil their full potential as things stand at the moment?

Ms Catriona Galster

The idea of autistic savants or people with very specific skills is quite rare. Much of what we are doing at preschool level is helping children to communicate. Usually, the children come to us and they either do not talk or do not have reciprocal conversation skills and are not able to tell us what they need. Our children are at a very early stage and the majority of them would have the same types of IQ that the Deputy or I would have. It is a matter, however, of channelling that in a classroom situation so that the child is in a position to be able to learn. They do not learn the same way we do.

One can take the education cycle further to secondary school but I feel that the training of teachers to teach autistic children is deficient. Teachers have an amount of training in special education but not necessarily in autism and there are many autistic children who need to be taught.

My apologies, but I will have to invite two Senators to contribute as they have to leave for a vote and I will try to bring them in before we finish. I call Senator Flynn to speak now, please.

I thank the Cathaoirleach. First, I welcome all of our guests to the committee today and it is an absolute privilege to be involved with the respect for SNA campaigns, if even at a small level. Some 43 years on, we are all more open now around disabilities in Ireland. We are no longer ashamed at having a child who has a disability or want to shy away from it. I understand that the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, was in all of the newspapers looking to establish educational centres for people with additional educational needs. We know that putting the Traveller community into boxes has never worked and we also know that putting people with disabilities or with extra educational needs into such boxes does not work either.

Speaking to Ms O’Sullivan, I have a qualification but I do not see myself as someone who has completed a scheme. I completed a qualification in Ballyfermot College of Further Education for ten months, like Ms O’Sullivan did, where we studied junior growth and development, psychology, etc., and how to work with young people in an educational setting. Kathleen Noone was in charge of the course, it is still available in Ballyfermot College of Further Education and it was brilliant. I completed the course in 2010.

I went on to work in a school in Ballyfermot for nearly two years and I know I am giving myself credit in saying this but it was great to work with that young person. I was not just a carer but was also an educator, that is, someone that young person could speak to. I became an SNA because when I was ten years of age I lost my mother and a few days after that I was in an accident. I had SNAs myself from time to time when I was in bad places, although I do not usually speak about that publicly.

Times have changed in our society and we need to change with them. We need to recognise SNAs as professionals. We also need to avoid labelling young people who are assigned SNAs. We now have 19,000 SNAs in our country and we must respect them by recognising their profession. It is not an easy course to do. In terms of mainstreaming equality for young children to enable them to reach their full potential, sometimes there can be barriers in our school settings and the SNAs help to break down those barriers. I know that from personal experience.

It is the right thing to do and I urge the SNAs here not to give up hope because community development work was only recognised as a profession relatively recently. That said, I have no doubt that the witnesses will be back here next year looking for SNAs to be recognised as a profession. Unfortunately, the political will is not there yet but the witnesses have run a brilliant campaign. It is important to continue to put pressure on the Department. Of course, a review needs to be done but we need to recognise SNAs as a profession first.

If there are any outstanding comments that the witnesses would like to make on the record, they have a minute to do so. I will leave open-----

Senator Flynn, I must invite Senator O'Reilly to pose her questions first and then the responses will all be on the public record.

I am sorry but I have to dash off to vote. I thank the witnesses for putting on the record all of the work they do. Most of us here have experience in education. I have been chair of a school board of management myself and we had an SNA on the board. However, it should not be on a school-by-school basis. What can we do to have a more standardised approach? There is a standard approach for how we treat teachers. It does not make any sense for the work plans for SNAs to be decided on a school-by-school or teacher-by-teacher basis. It is not just about the accreditation but also about standardised contracts and terms and conditions. The pandemic has shown us that SNAs are invaluable. We have seen that other things can change and that many people can work from home, including teachers but the one cohort for whom we needed the schools to be open was children with special needs. We all know it now and the public is on board. We must now make sure that the politicians are on board. I am going to have to dash off but will listen in to the responses.

Mr. Andy Pike

I thank Senator Flynn for her comments. All of our members who are SNAs, and there are many thousands in Fórsa, will recognise Senator Flynn as a friend. I am not going to make too many comments about the proposed SEN centres. There has been a lot of discussion around that. It is our policy to try to deliver and support an education system that is really inclusive but we do not see the establishment of SEN centres as being necessarily inclusive. The problem of children with additional educational needs not being able to find an appropriate school place is a very real one but we do not necessarily think that the SEN centre is the way to resolve that problem. While we would be critical of the Department of Education on a daily, if not hourly, basis from time to time, I am not at all certain that all of the fault lies with the Department. A lot of schools that do not want to accept students with additional needs should have a damned good look at their own policies and their consciences. It should not be the case that they worry that providing school places for students with different educational needs will lower the tone or the academic standing of the school. Senator Flynn used the term "mainstreaming equality".

It is the best way that I have ever found of looking at equality issues because every decision an organisation makes is viewed from the perspective of how we can increase equality and equity and what will be the consequences of what we do for disadvantaged groups. That is mainstreaming equality and it is central to everything we do. At the moment, many schools have to be given a wake-up call by the Minister, through the enactment of legislation, to get them to take seriously their responsibilities to provide school places to members of the Traveller community, students with additional education needs and anyone else who needs a place, rather than adopt a selective admissions policy which does so much damage.

Senator Pauline O'Reilly also asked questions.

Mr. Andy Pike

The standardised approach the Senator advocates is something we would agree with. It probably starts with a new contract with a new minimum essential qualification but there are other things the committee will have heard today that would help. Circular 0030/2014, which sets out the role of the SNA, clearly needs to be reviewed and changed to reflect the complexity of the role.

There are other issues as well. In schools that are administered by education and training boards, SNAs, as well as teachers, can stand for election to become the staff representative on the board of management, which is great, but that is not the case in independent schools. A change to statutory arrangements is needed to allow that to happen. Under the handbook, only teachers can stand to become members of the board of management in a school. I will conclude in case anyone else has something to add.

Mr. Shane Lambert

On standardising, there are items that need to be updated and reviewed but there is a national standard contract. In many ways, the difficulty can be getting independent schools to adhere to that contract or at least its principles. There is too much flexibility and independence in independent schools that enables them to step outside the terms of the contract. There is very little accountability because of the way the employment relationship is structured with the Department of Education in a kind of tripartite system.

The point about disparities was mentioned and it is important. We have been very clear that we are not saying that just because a particular public service grade gets a benefit or entitlement, it should automatically apply to SNAs. However it should apply to them when there is no objective justification as to why it should not. An example is bereavement leave. SNAs currently receive significantly less bereavement leave compared with that enjoyed by other civil and public servants. There is no difference between the grief an SNA in a school will experience when he or she loses a loved one, whether it be a partner, parent or a member of his or her extended family, and that of a teacher colleague who can get more bereavement leave. However, the teacher and SNA both get less bereavement leave than the civil servant who might be sitting in a Department office. If we want to talk about inclusion, we need to lead by example and eliminate these disparities where they have no justification. If there is a legitimate and objective justification, that is fine and one stands over that principled position.

I was taken aback by the statement that a SNA had to clean out a fish tank. On what grounds did a teacher, principal or someone else instruct the SNA to perform that function? I find that totally degrading. I do not know what the background was but any principal or teacher who instructs an SNA doing a fantastic job to carry out such a task, unless it is part of an exercise to teach children how to do it, does not deserve to be a principal or a teacher.

Mr. Shane Lambert

That is one of a number of examples, including washing cars, acting as car park attendant and doing gardening work. Dealing with that puts individual members in a very difficult position. They must first say "No" and they then find themselves in conflict with the employer. We tell them that is where we come in, that is why they pay their union subscriptions and we will represent them. In general, we will lodge a formal grievance or make representations to the employer but the damage to the employment relationship can sometimes be irreversible, particularly where a principal or manager takes the view that this presents a challenge to them. There is a feeling of "How dare this person who has only three D-grades in the junior certificate challenge me, someone who is professionally qualified?"

Do you find these issues are arising in bigger schools, or is there a mix right across the board?

Mr. Shane Lambert

It is a mix right across the board and there is no set pattern to it. There can be peaks and troughs at times, and when these issues raise their head we end up dealing with a lot of queries of a similar nature. Then all of a sudden they calm down or disappear for a while.

I call Deputy Carol Nolan.

My apologies, I was held up in a constituency clinic this morning. One of my main questions is whether we know if much of the fall in SNA numbers is because people are leaving due to the pay and conditions. As Mr. Lambert has outlined, sometimes there is a bit of conflict that goes with the job. Do we have any indication of numbers that are leaving? Is this the issue we have with teachers where recruitment and retention is a huge issue? Do we have the same with our SNAs?

Ms Noreen O'Mahony

We run a private Facebook page for Fórsa members and this year more than any other year - I do not know if it is from the pandemic - we see an awful lot of SNAs saying they are going to move on and get new jobs. Various reasons are mentioned but those that Deputy Nolan has said are front and foremost.

In terms of trying to resolve those issues then, what does Ms O'Mahony think needs to be done to ensure SNAs feel valued in our educational system? They are a very important part of our education system and are vital in helping children with special needs within the classroom environment. I know, as a former teacher, I was blessed to work with a number of terrific SNAs and I could not have managed without them. What needs to be done to change that?

Ms Noreen O'Mahony

Respect has to come from the top down. It has to start at the Department of Education and then it will flow down. The best classes I have worked in are the collaborative classes where people work together as part of a team. You see a problem and you come up with a solution. That is going on all across the country. As everyone is saying today, it is standardising that is needed, setting a bar and leaving it that high.

Thank you very much.

I have a brief question for Ms O' Sullivan. I am very interested to hear her praise for UCD and I think that is very good. Does she have any idea of the spread across the country of the participants on that course? In terms of the delivery online, is there any impediment to learning there or would it be better - in her opinion - as a combination of blended and online?

Ms Linda O'Sullivan

In terms of the people who took part in the first 500, we were scattered across the country. It started in January during that horrendous lockdown so in some regards that was a good time to start because we were at home and we were able to get on with our studies. I do not think it impedes learning. The work of secondary school SNAs might not finish until 4 p.m. or 4.30 p.m. and then they were attending college for a lecture from 6 p.m. onwards every Tuesday. The online part throughout the lockdowns was invaluable really because they did not have to worry about coming up to UCD and getting to Belfield. UCD has done tremendous work with guest speakers etc. on autism and various modules and to be able to run it online so smoothly. I have to give credit where credit is due to UCD for that. As some of my colleagues here who are going to complete the course, or have just completed the course, have said, it really is a terrific course but I feel it should be accredited. It should have never gotten to this stage that we have the second cohort in and we are still nowhere near getting accreditation. There were no issues with it being online. It was helpful to SNAs who were working to be able to just log on. Who knows in the future if it will be face-to-face?

Our guests have collectively given a really good picture of where things are at and what needs to be done and how quickly it needs to be done. I thank all of them for their contributions.

I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee today. I specifically thank the SNAs because it is difficult to appear before an Oireachtas committee. Mr. Pike and Mr. Lambert are well used to appearing before us. I thank the SNAs for their presentations and sharing their knowledge and insights into their daily activities.

When I speak on behalf of the committee, I speak on behalf of all members. I commend all SNAs on the valuable work they do and the immense contribution they make to primary and post-primary schools and communities throughout the country. I hope this meeting has been as beneficial to the members as it is to the witnesses.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.31 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Tuesday, 28 June 2022.