Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Special Educational Needs Staff

There is just one Commencement matter today. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, for taking it under difficult circumstances of Brexit, travel and so on.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. My question relates to equality and to how people are treated in the workplace. Special needs assistants, SNAs, do not receive all the benefits to which they are entitled. I was saddened and disappointed when my colleague, Conor Sheehan, in Limerick raised the issue of the entitlements of SNAs on their return to work. Primary school teachers are currently allowed one hour outside of their lunch break to express milk on returning to work, yet an SNA who returns to work at the same school is given 20 minutes but within her break.

The issue has been raised on several occasions in parliamentary questions tabled by colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, but the response we have received is that it remains under consideration. I ask that SNAs be treated in schools in the same way as teachers.

They should be given the same entitlements and opportunity to express milk for their child, and not be corralled into 20 minutes. I ask for SNAs to be treated with equality in the workplace and to get the same entitlements that teachers currently enjoy.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and for the opportunity to address the issue of breastfeeding breaks for special needs assistants. In accordance with the Education Act, the terms and conditions of employment of SNAs employed in approved posts funded by moneys provided by the Oireachtas are determined by the Minister for Education and Skills, with the concurrence of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. SNAs are recruited specifically to assist in the care of pupils with disabilities who have additional and significant care needs in an educational context. They may be appointed to a special school or a mainstream school to assist school authorities in making suitable provision for a pupil or pupils with special care needs. The first priority is that the care needs of the pupils are met on an ongoing basis during the school year.

Circular 0017/2013, published by the Department, deals with the maternity protection entitlements, including provision for breastfeeding, for SNAs in recognised primary and post-primary schools. Paragraph 14.1 of Circular 0017/2013 states:

Within a twenty six week period after the birth of the child, a special needs assistant who has returned to work is entitled to one hour per day for the purpose of breastfeeding. The time off, without loss of pay, may be taken as follows:

(a) one break of 60 minutes, or

(b) two breaks of 30 minutes each, or

(c) three breaks of 20 minutes each

The entitlements as contained in paragraph 14.1 of Circular 0017/2013 are in accordance with the Maternity Protection (Protection of Mothers who are Breastfeeding) Regulations 2004. Following consultation with school and staff representatives, the Department published Circular 0060/2018, which amended the entitlement to breastfeeding breaks for teachers so that the breaks could be taken for a two-year period after the birth of the child. The Department was contacted by representatives of SNAs following publication of this circular to request that a similar extension of breastfeeding breaks would be applied to SNAs. Initial consultation with stakeholders, including management bodies, has raised a number of issues which require further consideration. The primary concern is the provision of continued support to pupils with additional care and support requirements and the scheduling of any breaks must be cognisant of this overarching issue. Any changes to the current arrangement must take into account the requirement to fulfil the additional care needs of pupils without a break in provision. The extension of these provisions to SNAs is currently under consideration and will require further consultation with relevant stakeholders.

I thank the Minister of State. Unfortunately, it is the same answer again, which is that the issue as to whether SNAs will get the same entitlements as do teachers under Circular 0060/2018 is under consideration. This is a question of equality. Teachers are recruited to provide educational resources for the children in the school and so are SNAs. The least we can do is to ensure that SNAs are treated in the same way in our educational system as are teachers. I find the answer unsatisfactory. The long-term health and emotional benefits for breastfeeding are well established and women's health issues should be given committed attention within the workplace. The focus needs to be on promoting breastfeeding. The Department of Education and Skills is falling down on this. It said on many occasions that it would consider Circular 0060/2018 and its extension to SNAs. This has not happened.

I acknowledge the Minister of State is taking this on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills and cannot give me these answers but I would be grateful were he to give me a commitment, following from this debate, that he will organise a meeting for me with the Minister for Education and Skills where we could discuss this issue further and hopefully extend the same benefits to SNAs as are currently enjoyed by teachers.

I can certainly ask the Minister, who sends his apologies, or his staff who were here today to seek a meeting.

We have just been advised that Fórsa has been informed that while the Department has no plans to amend Circular 0017/2013, the matter is under further consideration. I will certainly bring the Senator's comments back to the Minister and his staff.

While there is no one here to whom to say it, I suggest that in circumstances where Ministers are obliged to travel, etc. Commencement matters to be dealt with tomorrow and Thursday should be reconsidered. I will get the Leader to reflect on that suggestion.

Sitting suspended at 12.40 p.m. and resumed at 1 p.m.