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.