Special Needs Assistants: Motion

I move:

“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.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I second the motion. I reiterate that we are not supporting the Government counter-motion, if that needs to be emphasised. I commend my colleague, Senator Ó Ríordáin, on moving this motion on behalf of Labour Party Senators. It arises from his own long experience as a teacher and principal and seeing first-hand the important role of SNAs. From my own experience as a parent of a primary schoolchild, I know the invaluable contribution made by SNAs to supporting the work of schools. In many classrooms across the country, as the Minister is aware, SNAs increasingly form a vital part of the school and educational infrastructure. I thank Senator Ó Ríordáin for facilitating a briefing earlier today with IMPACT representing SNAs and I welcome our colleagues from IMPACT and those representing SNAs who are in the Visitors Gallery for this debate. We are disappointed that the Government has tabled a counter-motion. We believe that the wording of our own motion is sensible, reasonable and reflects the real concerns and views of SNAs.

I reiterate what we heard from Kevin Callinan and others at the IMPACT briefing earlier. As Senator Ó Ríordáin has said, this motion and the principles behind it are not about money or the pay of SNAs. They are about respect for SNAs and the treatment, conditions and employment rights of SNAs, particularly their desire and absolute entitlement to be treated with respect in the workplace, which the wording of our motion reflects.

In particular, our motion seeks to emphasise the major problems that delayed publication of special needs assistants, SNAs, allocations causes to individual SNAs and schools, which must plan for the years ahead. In particular, this year the IMPACT ballot spoken of by Senator Ó Ríordáin was prompted by the delayed publication of SNA allocations to July, just two months before the new term for the 2017 and 2018 school year started. This caused enormous uncertainty for thousands of SNAs around the country who simply did not know until the last minute whether they had a job to return to in September. Not only is this disrespectful to SNAs but it is disrespectful to the schools, parents and, most important, the children whose education depends on the SNA allocation.

I will briefly address some of the broader points our motion also reflects, particularly the importance of SNAs in ensuring our children achieve full potential in schools. Many of us were very disturbed by comments made around the budget this year, with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, quoted being critical of the rise in the numbers of SNAs. He said he was alarmed by rapidly escalating costs while referring to the fact there are more SNAs than gardaí. This language was heavily criticised by Ms Lorraine Dempsey of the Special Needs Parents Association, who said she was concerned about the dangerous use of language. One can consider some of the commentary of the time. An editorial in The Irish Times pointed out that there has been an incidence of SNA allocations increasing but this is due to rising child populations, medical advances, better diagnoses and better recognition of the rights of children to be schooled in a mainstream education setting. After years of playing catch-up, we are finally making progress in meeting the needs of some of our most vulnerable children. The incidence of special needs diagnoses is increasing and so are the numbers of children who previously would not have been in mainstream schools. For example, there are 700 more children with special needs entering third level now versus two years ago, up 31%. We are seeing dramatically improved outcomes for children and young adults as a result of SNA allocations. Children are being enabled for the first time in our education system to meet their full potential.

Senator Ó Ríordáin also spoke of recent announcements by the Minister last week that we very much welcome. That happened after we submitted the text of the motion, if I am correct. We very much welcome the Minister's announcement, as reported on 6 December, that a total of 130 additional special needs assistants would be made available for allocation to schools between January and June 2018 and that schools would be informed of their allocation for the 2018-19 school year much earlier, possibly May rather than late summer. The announcement was welcomed by the Special Needs Parents Association and we also welcome it, as will the SNAs and IMPACT. It is still not good enough that we have waited until what seems the last minute before we debate this motion for the announcement to be made. In 2016, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills, as Senator Ó Ríordáin noted, specifically recommended that allocations be made earlier, ideally in March or April of the year preceding the year in which they are to be allocated.

We are disappointed with the amendment. We recognise the advances and increases, as well as the fact there will be more than 14,000 special needs assistants in place as a result of the recent announcement. We very much recognise and welcome the great increase in support that it represents for children with special needs in our educational system. However, not enough has yet been done to recognise the employment rights of SNAs, improve their working conditions and ensure they are treated in the workplace with the respect to which they are really entitled, given the vital contribution they make to our education system.

I hope the Minister will listen to what we are putting forward and know other Labour Party colleagues will also speak on this. We are appealing to colleagues across the House to support our motion and reject the amendment on the basis that we must ensure SNAs are treated with respect in the workplace.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “That Seanad Éireann:” and substitute:

“- 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;

- welcomes this Government’s ongoing commitment to ensuring that every child who is assessed as needing SNA support continues to receive access to that support;

- commends the substantial increased annual investment in SNA provision which has seen the number of SNAs increase from 10,575 in 2011 to 13,990 by the end of this year, an increase of 32% at a full annual cost of €458 million;

- notes that Budget 2018 provided for over 1,000 additional special needs assistant posts with up to 130 commencing from January 2018 which would bring the number of SNAs to 14,100 and further posts commencing from September 2018;

- notes that some 34,000 children attending mainstream classes, special classes or special schools now receive the support of SNAs;

- notes that the Minister for Education and Skills formally requested the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) to lead a comprehensive review of the SNA scheme aimed at providing better outcomes for students and ensuring that we are making the best additional investment for children with special educational needs;

- notes that in preparing its Report, the Minister for Education and Skills has asked the NCSE to consider the findings and recommendations of the Report on the Role of the Special Needs Assistant which was published by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection in January 2016;

- notes that the NCSE will conclude its review and bring forward its report by the end of March 2018;

- welcomes the undertaking of the Minister for Education and Skills that schools will be informed of their SNA allocation for the 2018/19 school year by the end of May 2018, fulfilling a commitment made by the Minister for Education and Skills in July 2017 that the notification of SNA allocations would be brought forward so that schools and parents can have greater certainty for the following school year;

- notes that by announcing SNA allocations for the 2018/19 school year by the end of May 2018, the supplementary assignment arrangements – and distribution of available hours to serving staff in schools – will operate to full effect;

- notes that the supplementary assignment arrangements for SNAs have operated since 2013 which seek to maximise job security for SNAs and ensure that schools continue to put in place the best possible support for the children in their care, and notes the ongoing commitment of the Minister for Education and Skills to the effective operation of that scheme in consultation with education partners as provided for in national industrial relations agreements;

- notes that procedures are in place involving schools, school management bodies, the Department of Education and Skills and staff interests to deal with SNA grievances and issues at school and national level, and notes the commitment of the Minister for Education and Skills to continued engagement with staff interests and school management on industrial relations matters.”.

I welcome the Minister, as well as our guests in the Visitors Gallery who represent the SNA association. During the worst years of the recession, the number of SNAs was not cut back by the current Government. Emphasis was put on learning and learning outcomes, with everything put in place to support students who were most vulnerable. That is most important.

More than 3,000 extra SNAs have been announced by the Minister since 2016, which is welcome. In my area there have been a number of special needs assistants posts announced and I am involved with a school with a number of special needs assistants. I have not come across many cases like those referred to by Senator Ó Ríordáin, with people being asked to do things outside their remit. The Senator received complaints in that respect but I have not come across them while being involved with many schools over many years. The increased investment reflects the priority the Government has put on helping children with special educational needs to fulfil their potential.

A report was put in place and I compliment the former Senator and her committee at the time. I know from meeting the Minister that the report has been taken on board. When the Minister asked for a review, he also asked that the points made by the committee at the time be considered. I understand that is being studied. The Department is taking into account these requests relating to special needs assistants. In 2013, a grievance support system was put in place by the then Minister responsible for education, former Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and I understand it is still in place. It has been worked on and has been strengthened as well. If the SNAs had any grievance, they could speak to school management and bring it further. As the mechanism is still in place, if people have a problem, they can move along a complaint. I know the Minister has committed to the effective operation of the scheme in consultation with education partners, as provided for in the national industrial relations agreements.

Procedures are in place involving school management bodies. I sit on a board of management and know that although we have not had complaints from people representing SNAs, there have been past grievances. They are aired at board of management meetings. From my experience, boards of management are open and receptive to listening and dealing with the matters of the day. I know from speaking to the Minister that he is willing to engage with staff interests and school management in all areas. The Minister and his Department are very committed in this respect. There has been a doubling of the number of special classes, and there has been a spread of autism spectrum disorder units, which are very necessary, right across the country. They are not just in Dublin and can be found in the regions, small towns and rural areas. The schools have specific units and children who were not able to attend mainstream classes are now able to do so.

I pay tribute to all special needs assistants throughout the country as they do fantastic and Trojan work. People like them have made it so much easier for children and they are very supportive of the students that they work with. This is really to be commended and these people should be recognised for the work they do. They have made the lives of students and their families easier through the support they give in conjunction with their work with the teacher and school.

I welcome the fact that there is engagement with regard to SNAs. There are procedures in place. Anything that can strengthen the role of people is to be welcomed but there is a lot of support in place.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. Cuirim fáilte mhór roimh na daoine atá ag éisteacht linn inniu fosta.

Fianna Fáil fully supports the Labour Party motion. I compliment the Labour Party Members on raising it. From a Fianna Fáil perspective we have been consistently critical of the manner in which the Government allocates SNAs. It is something that has been going on now over a four year period. It is very unfair on SNAs, the schools, the boards of management and the children. The Government's treatment of people employed as SNAs is reprehensible and completely lacking in respect.

When the 2016-17 school year ended, management of schools still did know how many SNAs would be allocated or even if they could retain their current staff. This also meant that people employed as SNAs did not know if they would be employed next year. The situation created unnecessary hardship as things were let go to the wire. It is unfair on SNAs who have to live with this uncertainty. Often they do not if they are going to have a job. Everybody would agree that is a very regrettable situation to be in.

When announcements were finally made, school boards of management and teaching staff had to come in during the summer to try to put arrangements in place in order that they would be good to go at the start of the academic year in September. Bear in mind that boards of management members were doing that in a voluntary capacity and the teachers were on annual leave. It was very unfair that they were asked to do that. It is time the special needs allocation was given greater predictability and announced before it gets too late. It should be announced no later than mid-May to give everybody time to know exactly where they stand and put proper plans in place. The SNAs would know that they have a job in their existing school or whether they have to make plans to try to find employment elsewhere.

It is important when we are discussing the issue of special needs education that we must not focus exclusively on the cost to the State. That would be a mistake. Rather, we must reflect on the real and positive impact that SNAs have on the well-being of our children with special needs. I hear reports that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, has raised concerns with the Minister in regard to the cost of special needs in schools. It is important the Minister holds firm and we do not lose sight of the bigger and very important picture.

Special needs education has been transformed over the last 20 years and we can be very proud of the progress we have made in that regard. It is imperative that we do not take a step back from that real progress. Nothing must be done to jeopardise that because it is important that each child who receives support from the Department of Education and Skills is classified as a valuable member of our society. The State must support his or her learning and development as much as possible. I am reminded when discussing this subject of the great American liberator, Frederick Douglass, who way back in the mid-1880s came up with the famous quote that we often use and it is very apt that we would use it today. "It is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men."

Céad míle fáilte to the representatives of the IMPACT trade union who are in the Visitors Gallery. The ongoing work and commitment which IMPACT and its members have vested in this sector is second to none. If they had been treated with any respect at all by the Government we would not be here this evening. We have a dysfunctional relationship between the Department of Education and Skills and the workers and families within schools. It is not fair that the SNAs employed by the State, the schools run by the State, and the families whose children are reliant on SNAs are left in the lurch like this year after year.

I cannot understand why after four years of ongoing failure there is still a habitual failure by the Department to publish the allocation of SNAs in a timely fashion. It is hugely disrespectful not just to the workers in the sector but also to the parents and the children who depend on these services to access a level playing field in education. The signal this ongoing failure by the Department sends to out SNAs and children is that they are not valued. They seem to be an afterthought. The agreements they have with the Department around deadlines do not seem to be worth the paper they are written on. What we do know for sure is that the Department is fully aware of how important and how serious this issue is for workers in the sector. We know this because the Department of Education and Skills published a report in January 2016 entitled, A report on the role of the special needs assistant. Recommendation nine of the report stated:

SNA allocations need to be made at an earlier date in order to provide SNAs with the appropriate notice of their employment in advance of the upcoming school year. Earlier allocations would also be beneficial for parents and students as they will have clear knowledge of the SNA support they may or may not be receiving for the upcoming school year. A March or April allocation deadline would be preferable.

This issue was explained to the Department in 2015 and the report was published in 2016. It outlined what had to be done. Why has the Department of Education and Skills failed in 2016 and 2017 to achieve this? If this happened once it would be frustrating. However, it happens every year. It is an habitual failure by the Minister's Department and that is why we are here. Sinn Féin fully supports the decision by 97% of members of IMPACT to take industrial action on this issue. We respect the work that they do. We recognise their commitment to students who need their vital help. SNAs are a lifeline to any person in a school with a disability. They help students with their tasks and allow students to get on with learning. The more inclusive we make our schools, the better the environment we create for all students and staff.

However, the stark reality is that students today are being taught in overcrowded classrooms. More and more costs of supposedly free education are being passed on to parents who should not have to deal with that sort of mental and financial distress. Voluntary contributions place a heavy burden on the family purse. SNAs have a relationship with the assigned students. They want security and continuity to strengthen that bond. At the very least, the SNA and the child should know in a timely fashion what the future of that relationship will be. This basic demand is not being met. This sort of behaviour displayed by the Department of Education and Skills is hugely disrespectful and unacceptable. To continue ignoring the demands and the needs of SNAs in this sector is unacceptable.

The Minister was told by representatives of IMPACT in 2015 at the Joint Committee on Education and Skills that the way SNAs were being treated was disrespectful. However, it has continued for a further two years. We have a situation where schools across the country are finishing their term for the summer, closing their doors and principals cannot prepare their schools' schedules for the next term because they do not know the allocation of SNAs. SNAs are left in the lurch as to whether they will have a job to go back to. They cannot apply for as new job because they may still have their old one. They cannot get the relevant documentation in order to apply for work, or at least prepare to apply, because they will not know what their situation will be. There is no security and no certainty. It is not good enough that the State would continue to act like this as an employer. Not only that, but last May we had 558 schools looking to appeal their special needs allocation under the new resource model. SNAs, as well as families, are being left in limbo and with a lack of clarity as to the resources that will be available to them.

The Minister must ensure that this critical information is provided for schools in good time. It is prudent, it is sensible and it is doable.

I am also aware that the Government is currently carrying out a top-secret review of the special needs assistant, SNA, scheme. I ask the Minister to please outline the steps being taken in this review process, the participants in the review, and whether, though it seems doubtful, trade union representation is being considered. The Minister should remember that trade unions are the only organisations that represent and protect workers. It is disappointing that there is an attempt to block them and to keep them outside the door behind which decisions are made. Just as an aside, it was also disappointing that yesterday the amendment to the Finance Bill 2017 proposing to reintroduce tax allowances for trade union subscriptions was ruled out of order, but sin scéal eile. It seems that the attack on trade unions goes on and on.

IMPACT represents over 8,000 workers in this sector alone and they are being ostracised when it comes to this issue. How can the Minister expect to deliver a review with any credibility when it does not contain the experiences and input of workers in the sector? The delay in publishing SNA allocations is not only in breach of the 2016 report by the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, it also undermines both the Haddington Road agreement and the Lansdowne Road agreement. These are provisions and deals that have already been agreed to, but they are not being fulfilled.

It is for these reasons and many more that we will be supporting the Labour Party motion. We call on the Minister to deal with the SNA allocations in a sufficiently timely manner, as IMPACT has requested; to provide job security for workers in this sector; and to establish a procedure for grievances to be heard. These demands are not a lot to ask for, considering the vital work SNAs do. They and their staff representatives deserve the Minister's respect.

I support the Labour Party motion. It is very welcome that the Labour Party took the initiative to do this. We talk in Ireland about being an inclusive society. The role of the SNAs is to support inclusion. I have seen it first-hand in schools in Tramore and through the needs of my own children. It is crucial that the SNAs get the security that is required to ensure that they can carry out their functions to the best of their capability. Moreover, I support those children who deserve their rights and need the support of SNAs. I fully support this motion of the Labour Party and hope it will be taken on board today.

I am particularly proud to support SNAs. Ever since I came into politics, I have always fought the battle for the parent, and parents certainly value the assistance an SNA gives to the child in the classroom. Those parents know that their child could not go through the education system without the support of the SNA. On many occasions I have had to support the same child in an appeal for an SNA year after year.

I also wish to acknowledge the work that the SNAs carry out in the school. Many schools would not function without the SNAs. I want to acknowledge IMPACT, some members of which are here today as professional representatives. They are a trade union, not an "association", as they were referred to earlier. They are a professional group of people representing workers, and they should be referred to as such. For far too long, we have had to fight the battle for the recognition of the trade union movement. As a strike will probably take place on 20 December where other union members are looking for recognition and a right to negotiate, I want to recognise the right of IMPACT to negotiate on behalf of SNAs.

Across the inner city there are SNAs that support schools from Sandymount to Ringsend and from City Quay to Sing Street. Those schools would not function or have proper integration without the help and support of SNAs. Many times an SNA has come to me in June saying that they had no job to go to in September. A fundamental right of a worker is the ability to plan their life. Allowing this situation is no way to treat a worker. I will recognise that earlier allocations will assist this greatly.

I want to touch on one point that Senator Ó Ríordáin mentioned, concerning the way post-primary SNAs are treated. For an SNA in post-primary to be asked to clean the toilets, paint the school or cut the grass is not acceptable. I put it to the Minister that additional training in that period would be very useful. This would assist SNAs who are anxious to provide a really good service and best serve the pupil. The SNA often become an enormous friend not only to the pupil but to their family. An SNA will show great concern for that child. Often, when an SNA is out sick, that child cannot attend school. Those services have to be built up and reinforced.

It was said to me by one of the SNA providers at the briefing in the AV room that the sign of a good SNA is that they do themselves out of a job. They build up the child's confidence, they provide support and they strengthen the child's ability to function. I have seen that in practice. I have seen SNAs go well above the call of duty. They engage with the school and make sure that when the pupil comes into the classroom, he is ready and able to participate. The disrespect that has been shown to this outstanding group of people over many years is no longer acceptable. We have to move on.

The sector has grown very quickly and in many ways we have to catch up. We have to run to catch up however, because our SNAs are now an integral part of the education system. It is just not true to say that if an SNA has a particular problem, they can take the issue to the board of management. As a matter of fact, the only people who do not have representation rights on schools' boards of management are SNAs. They contribute hugely to the school, yet they are excluded from participating in the board of management, unlike the teachers, the parents, and sometimes, at post-primary level, the pupils. We have excluded SNAs. That has to be looked at. The idea that an SNA can bring problems to the board of management is not living in the real world. It does not happen.

I know that the Minister wants to do what is best. I ask that he accept the motion in the spirit in which it was tabled. Let us work with the representatives of the SNAs to make sure that the child's experience in school is the best experience that it is possible for them to have. Above all, I call on the Minister to value the worker that provides that service, to make sure they get the respect that they deserve and give them certainty of employment so that they can plan their lives. We give everybody else that certainty. SNAs deserve the same certainty around their terms of employment.

I welcome our colleagues from IMPACT who represent so professionally the interests of SNAs across the education system at primary and secondary level. I recognise their absolute right to fulfil their role as a professional trade union in the context of Irish legislation, and to represent professionally those who seek their representation. They do that job very professionally.

It is fair to say that there is not a public representative in this Chamber, or in the other Chamber of these Houses, that has not made at least one representation to the system on the allocation of SNAs, on behalf of a school, parents or children.

However, it is rare that we have a discussion about the basic terms and conditions enjoyed and experienced by those who deliver that service and that is a flaw. There is little in the Government amendment to give anyone in the Visitors Gallery, those listening in and those SNAs who IMPACT represents any great hope that the Government is at all interested in providing a pathway to greater job security or that such is on the horizon in the future. In fact, a key part of my colleague, Senator Ó Ríordáin's, Labour Party motion is neglected. The Government amendment is largely silent on the issue of job security of an SNA and certainty in terms of hours and income.

My colleague, Senator Kevin Humphreys, alluded to the fact that the system of provision of SNAs over the past decade and a half or so has grown organically and on a piecemeal basis. Of course, one of the problems associated with that is that SNAs have become second-class citizens in terms of employment in the public system. They certainly do not enjoy anything like the same rights, entitlements and terms and conditions of their counterparts in the education sector and in many respects, they are victims of the fact that this system has grown organically over many years. Great credit is due to administrations in the 2000s and, in fact, the administration I served in from 2011 to 2016, for ensuring that the numbers of SNAs grew significantly to meet the demands my colleague, Senator Bacik, outlined.

It is regrettable to listen to a Minister, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, talking about the cost of SNAs. There are far too many people in Irish politics who speak about the cost of everything and who, unfortunately, know the value of little, and do not recognise that value. That particular Minister certainly is somebody who recognises the value of public service but it is regrettable that comments like that would be made and that an issue would become confused. What we are talking about is respect. It is about dignity. It is about providing job security and certainty, the type of certainty to which all workers in Irish society are entitled.

I know many SNAs. I have family members who are special needs assistants. I have many friends who are special needs assistants. They are extremely dedicated to the job that they do, the school they represent and the student they support through the education system. Unfortunately, the system has grown to take advantage of the dedication and selflessness that is always displayed by SNAs and to make certain assumptions about what an SNA is prepared to do. My colleague, Senator Ó Ríordáin, made reference to the fact that some SNAs in the system are expected to clean toilets, paint classrooms and do odd jobs around a school when the students are not there outside of the academic year, which is objectionable. It tells us all we need to know about how the system in general treats SNAs. It is a practice that is completely unacceptable and should end. It is not too much to expect that the thousands of SNAs who do remarkable selfless work should be afforded the same respect, dignity, job security and certainty as others working in the public service are entitled to expect.

This is a matter of respect. This is fundamentally what this motion is about. I hope that this House can unite behind this motion and reject the Government's narrow amendment, to which we object. We will put forward our motion because we believe that represents the direction in which the SNA system should travel because it is about respect, dignity, job security and certainty. If the majority of Members of this House can unite around this motion, it will represent a landmark, a milestone and a turning point in terms of the working conditions of SNAs.

I would like to say how pleased I am to participate in this debate and how I strongly support the amendment moved by Senator Maria Byrne which deals with all the issues of concern. I hugely value the role of SNAs. In my period in government, we have seen the number of children with special needs who are supported by SNAs grow by 12,000. There has been an increase of 50% in the number of children with special needs who are getting support from special needs assistants. This reflects a commitment by this and previous Governments to ensure that children with special educational needs get the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

I was pleased to attend the IMPACT education conference earlier this year in Cork - it is not an annual event - because I believe SNAs are truly key partners within the education system and I value their role. I have changed the system I inherited which dealt with the appointment of SNAs in the way that has been rightly criticised by Senators. I succeeded in changing this by sitting down with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, of whom several Senators have been critical. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, strongly supported this because he, too, believes that people should have certainty in the allocation of this resource and be able to plan their future. Despite Ministers having the opportunity to deal with this for years, I got the chance to change it and I did so. That was flagged, as the Senators will be aware, in October, long before this motion was tabled in the Seanad.

The work of SNAs is something to be treasured and valued within the school system. Let me assure Senators that having a review is not some secretive conspiracy against special needs assistants. This is being done, as the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has done in respect of resource teachers, to ensure that we bring in a system that is most responsive to the needs of children and respects the role of all those who work within the system. I am pleased to be able to tell the Seanad that the working group dealing with this has a SNA on it and that the NCSE, which is an independent statutory authority charged with advising me, as Minister, has involved IMPACT in the consultations and will continue to involve a wide group of people in the consultations as it seeks to do what it has already done with resource teachers. I remind those who feel in some way locked out of what the NCSE is doing that the NCSE has a track record in that it reformed the resource teaching allocation model, which is now a much better model. The resource teaching allocation model is recognised by everyone. It is fairer and it is working better. It brings children with special needs right into the heart of the school and it becomes a core element of it. I certainly hope the result will be the same in respect of the review that the NCSE is doing of the role of SNAs to ensure that we get the best service and that SNAs are respected.

I would be horrified to think that inappropriate duties are being asked of SNAs. I would point out - it is stated in the Government amendment - that we have grievance procedures to ensure that the unions which represent SNAs can raise those grievances and have them aired and dealt with. Officials in my Department will be stringent in ensuring that SNAs are used for the purpose set out in the circulars that govern their deployment.

It is fair to say - Senator Maria Byrne recognised it - that it was before my time that a panel was put in place to give security. That is working. Contrary to what Senators said, it is not a failure. The record to date is pretty encouraging in that the number of SNAs experiencing compulsory redundancy as a result of changes in the allocations to match children in the schools under the old system was running at between 300 and 400 per year, and now it is down to on average only 45 per year. The vast majority of SNAs who want to be redeployed are being redeployed.

In the four year period since the panel was introduced nearly 1,200 SNAs came up for redeployment and 84% found a place or decided not to continue. Only 16% faced redundancy. That system is working.

My Department officials met IMPACT officials earlier this month. We will continue the dialogue with them. I recognise there was frustration about the way in which SNAs were being allocated under the old model, where Ministers for Education had to go to their colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, in June and get a specific budget allocation that had not been provided for the year before. That created significant problems. It was a huge catch in the system. This year we have made the allocation in advance and we have decided that we will allocate 1,000 extra SNAs next year, in the same way that I allocated 1,000 this year and the 1,000 last year. This is a very firm and good system for planning for the future.

The Senators referred to the report by the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection. It is one of the elements that the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, will be addressing. It raised a number of important issues. Opening up SNAs to JobBridge is no longer an issue that people would consider, but other issues arise, such as changing entry level qualifications. The entry level qualification at present is FETAC level 3 and it is required that they would be urgently examined. That is something that the NCSE will look at. It also raised the issue of mandatory training being introduced, which is not there at present. There is no mandatory special education training for any staff across the system. Perhaps we need to move to that over time. Whether one makes it mandatory or starts to introduce improvement programmes is something to be considered by the NCSE. It was also raised for consideration that the use of SNAs as a teaching assistant or learning aid be considered. I know there are different views on that and not everybody would agree with the committee on that suggestion. There is evidence from the United Kingdom that is critical of that suggestion on the grounds that it runs the risk that the relationship between the child with special needs and the teacher as the leader of learning can be severed and that this is not necessarily advisable. The NCSE will have to evaluate whether that evidence from the UK is something that is strong, or what we should consider in that area.

I am strengthening legislation that will be introduced in this House to ensure that provision is made for children with special education needs, in order that not only can the NCSE require a school to take them but it will also have the power to require a school to establish an ASD specialist unit. Those are units with one teacher and two SNAs for six children. As Senator Maria Byrne pointed out in 2011, there were about 500 ASD specialist units and now there are more than 1,200. There has been a huge expansion in the number of units that create an environment where children with special needs can get the intensive level of support with the SNA working very closely with the teacher in the class. That model is certainly becoming more mainstream in the system compared to what it was. Approximately 60% of children with special needs go to mainstream classes but now an increasing number about 20% go to these special classes and they are certainly offering options. We are seeing the impact of this as well.

Recent figures show that school completion rates in Ireland are almost the highest in Europe and have been increasing significantly. Last year there was a very significant increase of 2 percentage points, just in one year. We are succeeding in ensuring that children who may not have gone very far in education are now remaining in education. As we saw recently in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, PIRLS, report on literacy, we are doing not only very well across the average, but we are particularly good at reducing the number of young people who are at very low levels of performance in literacy. Our focus on making sure that children who come into the system with difficulties are helped to achieve high standards. There is evidence that this is working. It is a real reassurance for people that the effort we have put in recent years to support literacy in our schools with the support of teachers, parents, the education policy and curricular development has been successful. I think it gives us cause for optimism in the future.

I believe we are on a good road of progress, recognising and expanding the role of SNAs, undertaking a review, which I believe, based on the track record of the work that was done with the review of resource teachers, we can have a lot of confidence in. The NCSE, under the Chairman, Mr. Eamon Stack, a former inspector in the Department of Education and Skills is undertaking that review. The work that the NCSE did on the resource teaching model actually won a public service award for being a particularly innovative piece of work that was not only innovative in its thinking but in its execution. I would be very heartened and optimistic about the work of the review. I can sympathise with Senators who ask why this was not done more quickly, but as Members are aware, the implementation of the resource teaching model took time to convince people to show the way in which it was done was the right road. We have taken time but this review will be available in the first half of next year. The work is progressing very intensively. I am confident that there will be input from people who have the experience, whether through their trade union IMPACT, SIPTU or people with their own direct experience. I will be glad to see that there is a number of inputs from individual special needs assistants who are making their own contributions and views known, so that the very best experience can be brought to bear in this review.

I assure the Senators that my commitment in this area is absolute. I have set five goals in the Action Plan for Education 2016-2019, which we have developed. One of the goals is to ensure that for children who come to the education system, either at a socio-economic disadvantage or at a disadvantage because of special needs, we will become the best in Europe at dealing with their needs. It is encouraging to see that the resources we have put in during recent times, something which is being supported across the House, are having a tangible impact on the performance of children. We need to continue to ensure that education does genuinely open up equality of opportunity for children.

I call on Senator Ó Ríordáin to conclude.

I thank all the Members who have spoken, particularly those who have spoken in support of the motion, Senator Robbie Gallagher from Fianna Fáil, Senator Máire Devine from Sinn Féin, Senator Grace O'Sullivan from the Green Party and the Civil Engagement group and my own colleagues, Senators Nash, Bacik and Humphreys who have laid out the reason this issue is so important.

I wish to pay tribute in particular to the IMPACT trade union, representatives of which are in the Visitors Gallery. If any SNA is listening to this debate in any part of the country is not a member of a trade union, today is a good example as to why they need to join a trade union. Without the activity of IMPACT, in mobilising their members, this debate would not be happening and the Minister for Education and Skills would not be here to respond to the issues that have been raised. I thank the members of IMPACT for being present in the Visitors Gallery, for promoting the interests of special needs assistants and for continuing to do so.

I take issue with some of the comments made by Government speakers. To suggest some level of surprise that an SNA has been given a menial task to undertake in a school is, as anybody who knows anything about special needs assistants, completely disconnected with the reality of what is happening in Irish primary and secondary schools. If that is a surprise to anybody, they do not know fundamentally what they are talking about.

I suggest that it would be significant surprise to IMPACT to learn that it is being consulted in regard to this review because if so, it was not aware of it as late as 2 p.m. I am sure it will be surprised to learn that it is part of the consultation for this review, which we believe from the amendment to the motion will report back in March 2018.

I am delighted to hear there is a SNA on the review group but that is not good enough. That is not a comprehensive review of the role of the SNA. If one is excluding members of the trade union which represents the SNAs from being on this review group or even in consulting with it in a meaningful way, I think the review is doomed to fail. However, we will give it a fair chance to report to the House. We will obviously be in the Chamber to discuss the group's report.

I think everybody in this House fundamentally knows the value of the special needs assistant. SNAs do not ask for much. They do the most incredible of jobs, they empower the most vulnerable of children in our system, they give them a reason to smile and they look forward to seeing them every day. They make a connection with them on a human level, which is unparalleled. Without them many families would not be able to cope. They give the child a reason to go to school and to look forward to it. They build relationships that often last long after the child has left second level education. They are not asking for even a fraction of the world, they are not even asking for a single penny in extra salary, all they are asking for is respect and for their role to be valued.

That is why so many Members of this House from different political backgrounds have looked at the motion and realised it is not a political football. We are not trying to have a go at anybody or have a political points scoring exercise. We are trying to defend the employment rights of SNAs with a trade union such as IMPACT. That is the reason that speakers from Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the Green Party and the Civil Engagement group have seen the validity of our motion and rejected the Government counter-motion. I am quite sure that when the votes are cast, it will become a Seanad Éireann motion that shows the SNAs of this country that this House respects them. The IMPACT trade union and other trade unions that work with SNAs are working tirelessly on their behalf. It will be a good day for them to realise that the political system is backing them, that their union backs them and this House backs them. What they want from the Minister for Education and Skills is that he will back them too.

That concludes the debate. Is amendment No. 1 agreed to?

A Leas-Chathaoirligh, the amendment was not seconded.

Government amendments do not need to be seconded. I am sorry about that.

Amendment put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 16; Níl, 20.

  • Boyhan, Victor.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Hopkins, Maura.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • Reilly, James.

Níl

  • Ardagh, Catherine.
  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Black, Frances.
  • Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
  • Conway-Walsh, Rose.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Davitt, Aidan.
  • Devine, Máire.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Kelleher, Colette.
  • Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • O'Sullivan, Grace.
  • Warfield, Fintan.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Gabrielle McFadden and John O'Mahony; Níl, Senators Ivana Bacik and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.
Amendment declared lost.
5 o'clock
Question put: "That the motion be agreed to."
The Seanad divided: Tá, 21; Níl, 15.

  • Ardagh, Catherine.
  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Black, Frances.
  • Boyhan, Victor.
  • Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
  • Conway-Walsh, Rose.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Davitt, Aidan.
  • Devine, Máire.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Kelleher, Colette.
  • Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • O'Sullivan, Grace.
  • Warfield, Fintan.

Níl

  • Burke, Colm.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Hopkins, Maura.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • Reilly, James.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Ivana Bacik and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin; Níl, Senators Gabrielle McFadden and John O'Mahony.
Question declared carried.