Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Questions (8)

Kathleen Funchion


8. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Education and Skills to outline the level of consultation with the SNA sector regarding the new recommendations made by the National Council for Special Education in respect of changes to the role of SNAs in the classroom that were agreed between the NCSE and his Department following a review in 2018; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19798/19]

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Oral answers (5 contributions) (Question to Education)

Deputy Quinlivan is to introduce Question No. 8.

Will the Minister outline the level of consultation undertaken by the Department and the National Council for Special Education with the special needs assistant sector when developing the newly-proposed 13 recommendations affecting and altering the role of SNAs in the classroom? Will the Minister also outline the level of consultation held with the unions regarding the SNA sector in advance of the rolling-out of the new pilot scheme, which is set to commence in September 2019?

I thank Deputy Kathleen Funchion and the Deputy for raising the question orally in the House.

In 2016, the National Council for Special Education was requested by the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, to review the special needs assistant scheme and to advise him on what support options are needed to provide better outcomes for students with additional care needs. Following extensive research and consultation with schools, parents, SNAs and other stakeholders a report was submitted last year. The review found that the SNA scheme was working really well, particularly for younger children and for certain type of care needs, for example, mobility and toileting. It also found that a new and more widely-based model of support involving education and health supports was needed to meet the range of student needs currently presenting in our schools. The review made a number of recommendations, including the way SNA support is allocated to schools and the need to build school capacity through training. Overall, the council recommended a new service model, the school inclusion model, that would involve the provision of speech and language and occupational and behavioural therapies in schools, as well as the development of a national nursing scheme to cater for children with the most complex medical needs. The overall aim of the model is to improve outcomes for children by ensuring each child receives the right support at the right time. The Government approved a pilot of the new model in 75 schools for the 2019-20 school year. The model will be independently evaluated. A budget of €4.75 million has been allocated to support implementation of the review findings.

Consultation will be a central feature of the development and implementation work. More than 50 people, including SNAs and their representatives, attended an information and consultation meeting last week. Separately, there have been meetings with the union representing SNAs and other meetings are planned.

I wish to take this opportunity to acknowledge the team and staff at Drimnagh Castle, where I met the teachers, behavioural therapists, HSE representatives, occupational therapists and speech and language specialists who are working on the social inclusion model. I hope that following a proper comprehensive evaluation of this model, we will be looking to extend it after the upcoming year.

Does the Minister agree that SNAs themselves are best placed to advise the NCSE and the Department on what needs to change to maximise the potential of an SNA working in a classroom?

Leaving SNAs out of the conversation will backfire. It is short-sighted and contravenes what the Minister is trying to achieve. Without their valuable input, the Minister is, in effect, imposing new terms and conditions without proper consultation on an already stressed sector in our education system. Under these new guidelines, there are significant issues with job fragmentation and contractual inequalities that need to be addressed. I understand that there will be some agreement to meet with the unions by this September when the new pilot scheme is set to be rolled out. Are there any plans for discussion in advance of that? There is no point in meeting to discuss the new terms and conditions once the pilot has started. This must happen in advance in order to have the sector's input into what will work best and to address many of the problems that the sector can have.

Does the Minister acknowledge that, without this co-operation, he will most likely face a new crisis in the SNA sector? Their numbers will drop and there will be fewer SNAs than before, exacerbating the existing staffing challenges. Ultimately, children with additional needs will suffer. Once again, students will take the brunt of bad decision-making. Children and families who already have to fight every step to get a place in a class might be denied an SNA due to a shortage which could be prevented by proper consultation. Will the Minister agree to meet representatives of the sector as a matter of urgency in advance of the pilot being rolled out?

I will meet the representative of the trade union, Fórsa, and will be happy to discuss this. This pilot is important. The difference to the previous pilot is that behavioural therapy is included within this model. I agree with the Deputy that the central feature of any school that I walk into, whether a primary or secondary school, is the role of the SNAs. Students do not make any differentiation between an SNA and a teacher. They see them as being on an equal footing. However, we also have to give them that certainty and that is why this pilot is important. It looks at changing the profile of the model and at removing diagnostic as a lead to ensure that the profile of the school is there in the first place. We are trying to give more certainty to SNAs about their terms of employment. We are also looking at upskilling and training. There is a major gap in SNAs being afforded the opportunity for continuing professional development. One of the elements of the social inclusion model is to ensure that we have a higher authority for the training of SNAs, to give them the right and proper status that they deserve.