Thursday, 17 October 2019

Questions (4)

Bríd Smith


4. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Education and Skills if funding for additional SNAs and improvements in the pay and conditions of SNAs will be provided for in 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42572/19]

View answer

Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Education)

My question follows on from the previous one to some extent. Will the Minister clarify if the additional funding announced for 1,000 SNAs includes the 800 extra SNAs that he announced in May or is it a further 1,000? Will this announcement of extra funding include an improvement of conditions, hours and precariousness under which these workers work? I also want to talk about the pay levels.

Special education is a priority, as outlined in the previous answer. The Department's policy aims to ensure that all children with special needs can have access to an education appropriate to their needs, preferably in mainstream school settings, and where parents have chosen for the child to go to special classes, for which there are 125 facilities in total in the country, that choice is available.

Following the recent budget, €1.9 billion or about one fifth of the overall education budget will be invested in the provision of additional supports for children with special educational needs in 2020. The 800 were part of the previous budget, which brought the number to 16,000. We are now going from 16,000 to 17,000, which is a 61% increase since 2011.

This will include funding for an additional 1,064 SNA posts that will be available for allocation next September. This will support the extended roll-out of the new school inclusion model and ensure that students with additional needs get the right support at the right time as well as supporting the provision of up to 1,300 new special class places.

I am satisfied that the level of provision we have made in recent years has ensured that all children with special educational needs can participate in education and that most children with special needs have been able to be enrolled in the school or placement of their choice.

Remuneration for SNAs is set with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. SNAs benefit from the increases approved under public service pay agreements. The most recent increase in pay of 1.75% took effect from 1 September. Two further increases are scheduled for January 2020 and October 2020. Other matters relating to terms and conditions of employment, including claims, are managed through the established industrial relations structures.

It is great that the Minister is announcing all these extra hours. The public would state that this is an amazing achievement and that an additional 1,000 on top of the previous 800 is what we need for the children, the parents and to take the pressure off the teachers and SNAs. The difficulty is that many SNAs still work under very precarious terms. They do not know until May what will be their allocation for the following year. Previously, they did not know what the allocation would be until August or September, so that is a bit of an improvement but nevertheless, a person could end up with 0.6 or 0.25 of a post. Often, if the special education needs organiser determines that a child does not need as many hours, then it is a last-in, first-out situation. There is significant precarity and uncertainty in terms of who one is looking after, where one works and the hours one works. There is an outstanding issue of 72 extra hours that the SNA works in each academic year that are flexible within the school. SNAs often clean or photocopy material. They are not cleaners, they are special needs assistants. They are trained and value the work that they do, as, I believe, does the Minister. Can we look at the detail of the conditions of SNAs?

The figures for the collective teaching staff across primary and secondary stand at 71,000. As of September next year, we will have 17,000 SNAs.

I have met with the Ulster branch of the SNA groups up in the north west over the last year and I get the sense of insecurity around future prospects. That is why I am taking the recommendations to have a proper national training authority mechanism for SNAs seriously. We also need to look at how we can have a better mechanism in place for their future sustainability, their future prospects and their career progression, as other people in the system have.

An SNA industrial relations forum was recently established in the Department. It has met once. This has only happened in recent weeks. This forum mirrors those fora operating in other education sectors, such as the education and training board, ETB, industrial relations forum and the institutes of technology forum. The parties to this forum include officials from the Department of Education and Skills, management bodies, and Fórsa trade union. I know the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union, SIPTU, represents 600 to 900 SNAs as well. I am conscious we need to get proper mechanisms in place. This is not the end game of where I want to go to but tús maith leath na hoibre. It is important we start the conversation.

I want to emphasise it is not just about the future prospects and the possible improvements in training. On the day-to-day level, the experience of thousands of SNAs is the fragmentation and insecurity they experience. There is an idea that there is a 72 hour block in a given year where they are flexible to do what has to be done in the school, whether it is cleaning, washing, taking kids to the toilet or doing office work. That is not what they are there for. We have to take a holistic approach to how we look after our children with special needs. As the Minister knows, and he has often stated he has huge admiration for SNAs, they are mainly female, they are loving and caring and they really mind and care about the children, but for them to be treated as lesser workers with lesser rights leads to demoralisation and insecurity. That fragmentation of their lives is not a good sign of how we treat the package of special needs in school. It is a package. It is done with the parents and children and, crucially, the special needs assistants who look after the children. My question is on the fragmentation of their lives and jobs, the insecurities they face and the 72 wild hours in a year in which they might have to do anything that is requested of them. That needs to be looked at.

I appreciate the extent of the contribution they make. That is important because this is an important issue and an issue I want to work on. I assume the issue of the 72 hours has been raised through the forum that has been set up. I also want to point out that young students do not differentiate between SNAs and teachers. They know now they are part of an all-inclusive school model. Their contribution is something I value. That fracturing and fragmentation is something I want to focus on as well. The Deputy is correct in saying it is primarily a female dominated profession but I am starting to see and meet a lot of men in the profession, and I mention two in particular. One of those men was a butcher and the other was a construction worker. They have moved into training to become SNAs. We are lucky to have a great place like St. Angela's College in Sligo, which the Acting Chairman will be familiar with. It is inspiring to see these men who have gone from traditional sector work into this work. It is transformative and they feel they are in a job that is really important. Words are only words and that is all I am providing today. We have set up a forum and I want to continue to work on the recommendations. Fórsa and SIPTU are the trade union representatives and I know they have voiced a lot of these opinions as well but as I said earlier, we have gone from an education model in this country over the last 100 years of exclusion to one of integration and inclusion. If we are serious about inclusion, SNAs will be at the heart of that.

I want to say to the Minister and to Deputies that there are time slots agreed by the House. I do not mind Members taking eight or ten seconds but Members continuously go over time-----

The Acting Chairman is wile hard on me today.

I know it is an important issue, but at the same time, I have to chair this and the fact that we go over time means that our colleagues are being left out at the end.