This week, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) launched its review into the Special Needs Assistants (SNA) Scheme.

Speaking at the Gresham Hotel in Dublin on Wednesday, NSCE Executive Teresa Griffin outlined a number of changes to the present model to an assembly of educators, professionals and charities from across the country.   

Over 34,600 Irish pupils with additional care and special educational needs – such as autism – are supported by some 14,000 SNAs. The €450million Scheme has been in operation for over twenty years but has been a source of some controversy in its provisions.

In this article, we’ll take you through the reviews main points and explain how it applies to you.

WHY WAS A REVIEW CARRIED OUT IN THE FIRST PLACE?

There are several reasons.

A number of gaps in the support system have been hotly debated for years and identified in the review, namely around how to help undiagnosed pupils on length waiting lists, a lack of training to meet certain needs, and uncertainty over what an SNA’s precise roles are.

For many, the SNA Scheme is what the review calls “a blunt instrument [that] deals with a very wide range and variety of needs, age ranges, developmental stages and school settings.” The Education Minister requested the NSCE carry out a review into the current system to see how it could be refined and meet the needs of pupils on a wider scale.

Another reason is down to logistics. The Department of Public Expenditure has previously expressed concern over “rapidly escalating” costs in education which have jumped by more than a third in the past five years to €500,000. Future proposals need to be made on a careful budget.

Problems with supply and demand tie into this. A better understanding of autism and other disabilities amongst parents and educators has seen more children’s needs being identified in school settings. Marked rises in SNA applications has in turn put pressure on the limited numbers of those currently available, resulting in heated disputes over allocations between schools and families.

WHAT DID THE REVIEW FIND?

There are gaps in the system: There is no national training programme available for SNAs who require access to training that is appropriate for the many and varied needs they are required to undertake in the school setting. It was also found that SNAs are sometimes expected to manage very challenging behaviours, often without the required skillsets, training and adequate supervision.

Some students are not well prepared for life after school: Over-dependency on one adult was identified as an issue for pupil’s self-development. Close working relationships with SNAs are certainly positive, yet the study found that some pupils were over-protected in school and as a consequence were not well prepared for independent life after school. This is an especially serious problem for those pupils with communication and social skills difficulties (i.e., those who are autistic).

SNAs are given a teaching remit in some schools: Although the two roles are distinct and defined in writing, several cases showed blurs between them. It appears that in some schools SNAs are being given a teaching type remit and some students with care needs are being ‘taught’ for some of the day by SNAs. As a result, students are spending time away from their class teachers and other students with people who, however well intentioned, are not qualified teachers.

WHAT ARE THE RECOMMENDATIONS?

Frontloading SNA support so the majority of posts are allocated ahead of time, removing the need for assessments and allowing for earlier intervention.

Boosting access to a greater range of supports and making expertise available in regional teams to support schools. This will include ten regional teams with 230 specialist teachers, therapists, special educational needs organisers and behavioural practitioners who will work directly with schools and students.

Training and upskilling for SNAs as well as teachers and the wider school community.

Students to have access to support without the need for diagnosis of a disability.

WILL THESE CHANGES AFFECT MY CHILD’S CURRENT ACCESS TO AN SNA?

The proposed changes’ scale has made some parents anxious about their child’s current access to an SNA and whether supports will be cut. Minister Bruton has committed to ensuring that every child who need an SNA will still have access to one.

USEFUL LINKS

Comprehensive Review of the Special Needs Assistants Scheme – Full Report

Comprehensive Review of the Special Needs Assistants Scheme – A Booklet for Parents/Guardians & Students

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