“That Seanad Éireann:
- recognises the vital role that special needs assistants (SNAs) play in Ireland's education system, providing essential support for some of the most vulnerable students in our classrooms;
- acknowledges the overwhelming vote in October 2017 by over 8,000 SNAs as members of IMPACT in favour of industrial action;
- regrets the failure of the Minister for Education and Skills to implement the recommendations of the Oireachtas education committee report on the role of the special needs assistants published in January 2016;
- condemns the July publication of SNA allocations in 2017, which caused enormous uncertainty for SNAs;
- demands that the Minister for Education and Skills guarantee that:
- in future, SNA allocations will be announced in sufficient time (no later than May) to allow the supplementary assignment panel – and distribution of available hours to serving staff – operate to full effect;
- arrangements will be put in place in respect of job security for SNAs;
- an agreed procedure will be established for dealing with SNA grievances and issues.”
I welcome the Minister to the House. On behalf of the Labour Party group, I am delighted to propose this motion in defence of the employment rights of special needs assistants. Before I do so, I acknowledge the attendance in the Visitors Gallery of members of IMPACT and some of the special needs assistants it represents very ably and with distinction. It might not be well known to many Members of this House - in fact, it might not be well known to many members of the Irish public in general - that IMPACT has balloted for industrial action out of complete frustration with the actions, or inaction, of the Department of Education and Skills. Most people would agree that when a profession such as that of special needs assistants is forced to ballot for industrial action, something has gone seriously wrong. SNAs are dedicated to the welfare of the students they work with. Anyone who has ever come across an SNA in any school in Ireland knows that this is their primary concern. When it comes to a situation where the union that represents over 8,000 SNAs feels it has to ballot for industrial action, and when 97% of those SNAs agree that industrial action is the route they feel it is necessary to pursue, then something is seriously wrong.
I have some history with this issue, as do many in the Labour Party. I initiated an Oireachtas committee report on the role of the SNA in the last Oireachtas and this was completed by the then Senator Mary Moran and published in January 2016. I recall a number of years ago having a public meeting in my constituency on the issue and that meeting was stuffed out the door with people willing to tell their stories. What always comes back, and it happened again this afternoon at our briefing for all Members of the Oireachtas, whom I want to thank for attending to hear the story of SNAs, is that it is never, ever about money. Fundamentally, what SNAs are asking for is respect.
We could spend hours talking about the respect or disrespect that SNAs are shown within the walls of the schools in which they work. Any SNA will tell stories they have heard or witnessed about menial tasks they have been asked to undertake, about the fact they are referred to by their first name while every other adult in the school is referred to by their second name and about the basic lack of value placed on them as professionals in an educational setting. However, we are not here to talk about that issue. We are also not here to talk about the number of SNAs in the system, which obviously was increased under the last Government and again under the Government. While that is to be welcomed, it is not the point. The point is the way that SNAs are treated by the Department of Education and Skills.
Fundamentally, it comes down to the timing of the allocations. I know last week and earlier this month, it was relayed to IMPACT that that situation would change and that the allocations would be known from May next year so that SNAs can plan for September in future. That is to be welcomed but it is very late in the game for SNAs to know that and it is disappointing that they had to ballot for industrial action before they got such clarification from the Minister's Department. There is still a huge number of issues with the situation with special needs assistants. The Minister mentioned in his counter-motion that a review is being undertaken by the National Council for Special Education relating to the role of an SNA. IMPACT informed us this afternoon that it has no role, involvement or engagement in that review. It is staggering that, if the Department is to pretend that the SNA is respected, the body that represents the vast bulk of SNAs has no involvement in this review. The Minister can suggest to me that that is not the case. If it is not the case, why would senior members of IMPACT state it so categorically in an open forum this afternoon?
Points were raised this afternoon which really shocked me and I thought I knew this issue inside out. The issues include SNAs at second level being asked to be on-site doing fundamentally menial tasks in June. Gardening and painting were mentioned. Just being asked to be on-site for the month of June was mentioned. That is something that anybody would find reprehensible from an employment rights perspective. They have no board of management representation. Everybody else in an educational setting has representation on the board of management. The parents and patron would have representation on the board of management but not the special needs assistants. They have no involvement with the care plan for individual students. When a care plan is put together by the school for the students who are under the care of an SNA assigned to help them during the day, the SNA is not involved in that care plan. It comes back again and again to the issue of respect.
I know the Minister will not want to micromanage every school and the way every school or school principal deals with an SNA or group of SNAs in the school but leadership in education comes from the top. I suggest that leadership is sorely lacking. Another issue, which it might be suggested is small, that comes down to basic respect is the matter of bereavement leave. If one is a teacher, bereavement leave is five days whereas it is three days for an SNA. All these small things add up to SNAs believing that they are not respected, do not have security of work and cannot plan for the future or look forward to September with some kind of security of tenure. Until now, SNAs have not known if they would be back in a school in September; they wondered if they should apply for another job and considered that perhaps they should not because they might retain original positions. There is insecurity related to bills, mortgage repayments etc. that everyone has to pay.
We ask the Minister to change the attitude that the Department has to special needs assistants, to acknowledge them as a vital component of our education system, to acknowledge that the special needs assistants we have, approaching 14,000, are vital in the roles that they have. They are not an add-on to the system. They are not a luxury. They need to be clearly defined. They need to be given the respect and value that they deserve at this stage. It is only fitting that the report compiled by former Senator Mary Moran would be at the top of any review mechanism that is in place.
We have a few fundamental questions. I know it is the way of things to table a counter-motion and that the Minister has spoken in his counter-motion about the number of SNAs who have been allocated and that is fine and to be welcomed. However, the employment rights and the value placed on individual SNAs is what we are speaking about today. It does not come down to the salary expectation that any SNA has. Whenever any of my Labour Party colleagues or I have a discussion with special needs assistants, money is never raised. It is always about the respect they are given from within the school and from the Department. We ask the Minister to expand on what he has said in his counter-motion with regard to the review. Will he engage with the practitioners and representatives in compiling that review? I find it incredibly frustrating when dealing with the Department that there always seems to be a review, committee or paper written by somebody else and the Department seems unwilling or unable to make a definite decision outside of having another body compile a report.
There are many issues in the area of education on which we in the Labour Party group believe the Government is falling down. We have the ongoing issue of pay discrimination among primary and second level teachers which was raised again with me today. Noises from the Government are not helping with it. I received a phone call today from Councillor Mark Wall in Kildare about St. Paul's Secondary School in Monasterevin and its lack of certainty as to the progress of its school building. There are many issues with education coming down the tracks. We get action plan after action plan after action plan from the Department, yet the very good work which was compiled by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills seems to have been sitting on a shelf for almost two years. There is inaction when it comes to a cross-party, bipartisan approach to the future of the SNA. Let us get beyond the numbers of SNAs allocated by the Minister's Department because that has been acknowledged. We want to deal with the issue of respect, ensure we value special needs assistants and engage with them and their representatives in any review the Minister undertakes. We will call a vote on our motion. We are sticking with it as laid down. We reject the counter-motion and we want support for our motion from all corners of this House.