The purpose of the Special Needs Assistant (SNA) scheme is to provide schools with additional adult support staff who can assist children with special educational needs who also have additional and significant care needs.
The criteria by which SNA support is allocated to pupils is set out in my Department's Circular 0030/2014 which is available on my Department's website at www.education.ie.
The Circular explains that where pupils have particular care needs, that schools should ensure that SNAs who are recruited to work with such children are equipped with the skills necessary to support the particular needs of these pupils. It is a matter for the Board of Management of a school to ensure that SNAs in the school are in a position to effectively meet the care needs of the pupil/pupils for whom the SNAs have been appointed.
Where specific training may be required, the board should liaise with the Health Service Executive (HSE) in order to ensure that the HSE provides guidance and/or training that enables the SNA to meet the care needs of the pupil in an appropriate manner.
Circular 30/2014 states that students with special educational needs, including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), can have very complex learning needs and should be taught by qualified and experienced teachers who are equipped with the necessary skills to meet the needs of these students. It is the responsibility of the classroom teacher to ensure that each pupil is taught in a stimulating and supportive classroom environment where all pupils feel equal and valued.
The Circular also notes that many children with significant special educational needs require additional teaching support in schools. In such circumstances, the classroom teacher will be supported by a resource teacher/ /learning support teacher, who are fully qualified teachers who will have access to additional training in the area of special education. Such additional teaching support allocations are made to schools in addition to any SNA provision.
The Circular therefore notes that although the SNA can provide useful assistance to the teacher in ensuring that the pupil is able to access education, it is the role of qualified learning support/resource teachers to assist the class teacher to provide additional teaching to pupils with special educational needs.
My Department provides for a comprehensive system of continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers in the area of special educational needs including teachers of children with ASD. Central to this is the Special Education Support Service (SESS). The brief of the SESS is to enhance the quality of learning and teaching of students with special educational needs through the provision of CPD and support for teachers in mainstream schools, primary and post-primary, special schools, and special classes.
Reflective of the important role of CPD, my Department, through SESS, has put in place a training programme for teachers in autism-specific interventions including Treatment and Education of Autistic Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH) and Picture Exchange Communications System (PECS).
The SESS also provides whole school training at the request of schools. At the principal's discretion, SNAs can also access courses during whole school training. There are no current plans to extend the remit of the SESS to provide for SNA training in the future.
Further support is provided to children and their families by the Middletown Centre for Autism in Co. Armagh. This Centre is jointly funded by my Department and the Department of Education in Northern Ireland. The Centre provides a comprehensive nationwide training service for parents and educational professionals. Parents can view the range of courses which the Centre has available through the website www.middletownautism.com.