Can schools do without Special Needs Assistants?

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The value-for-money audit to identify cases where Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) are no longer needed is being carried out in all schools where SNAs are employed. The work has been undertaken by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) on behalf of the Department of Education.

A spokesman for the Department said posts that did not meet current criteria were being identified. These included posts that had been retained when a pupil's care needs had diminished or a student had left the school.

The department spokesman stressed that SNA posts would continue to be provided where pupils qualified for support.

However, the review is expected to recommend a stricter interpretation of the criteria used for appointing SNAs, which will result in the loss of an estimated 1,200 posts.

The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) said that primary teachers were deeply concerned about the reduction in SNA levels in primary schools.

Inclusion of special needs children in mainstream schools requires adequate staffing to meet both the educational and care needs of these children, the union added.

Incoming general secretary Sheila Nunan pointed out that cutbacks in care staff would affect all children in mainstream classes and could limit the ability of schools to integrate special needs children.

Meanwhile, there is consternation in schools around the country that have had devastating cuts to their number of SNAs.

Tallaght principal Brendan Hennigan has been told he will lose over two thirds of his teaching and support staff by the end of the year.

Mr Hennigan, who heads up St Joseph's Special School in Balrothery, said that following a review concluded by the NCSE, eight of the school's seventeen SNAs are to go.

The NCSE also indicated that the number of teachers at the school would be cut from sixteen to six at the end of the current academic year, he said.

This is all happening, he added, in spite of the fact that many of the 90 emotionally and intellectually disabled children attending the school were preparing now to sit their Junior and Leaving Certificate exams.

“These cuts are particularly cruel and inhuman… Essentially if the cuts go ahead we will have to close the school down," Mr Hennigan said.

“A lot of our children are with us because they have emotional and behavioural problems,” he explained.

“Then, on top of that they can have various other learning disabilities and behavioural problems … Our problem will be that when they [the SNAs] are taken away we will not be able to do the job.

"We won’t even be able to guarantee the safety of everybody because as the kids have emotional problems they could end up attacking each other and that kind of thing if they are not properly supervised.”

Speaking in a Dáil debate, Fine Gael education spokesman Brian Hayes said the loss of staff at St Joseph's would make it impossible for the school to operate.

"What has come from the National Council for Special Education is nothing short of a butchering exercise on the part of a quango that you, Minister, have asked to do your dirty work for you."

"Many believe that the current review of SNA provision nationally is nothing more than an exercise in cutting back support to the most vulnerable children in our education system," Mr Hayes said.

Another special school – St Anthony's in Castlebar – is losing four SNAs. The school caters for 40 children who have a variety of special learning needs ranging from blindness and deafness to cerebral palsy and cystic fibrosis.

Parents have made an emotional appeal against the planned cut. Geraldine Hastings, whose daughter Louise attends St Anthony's and requires one-to-one care of a special Needs Assistant at the school, said:

"We are refusing to accept this… I and all the parents of children with special needs would prefer if our children were independent but they are not and they need the care they are getting, no less.

"Louise, my daughter, was born healthy but then developed epilepsy at three months and her brain was unable to cope. We promised her that we would care for her and we have…"

Speaking in the Dáil, Fine Gael deputy John O'Mahony asked Minister O'Keeffe to examine immediately the criteria used to review the SNAs at St Anthony's.

Meanwhile, trade union IMPACT has called on Green Party education spokesman Paul Gogarty to end his silence on the SNA cuts.

"As news comes through about jobs and hours that have been cut up and down the country, our members have one very simple question for Paul Gogarty – where are the Greens?

"…They… claim that education is a priority for them… Equality of access and a commitment to amending the Education for Persons with Special Education Needs (EPSEN) act was one of their election promises in 2007.

"Yet the Greens were government partners when the decision was made to suspend the implementation of the EPSEN act, which has paved the way very directly for these cuts to take place.”

In response to parliamentary questions from Labour TD Ruairi Quinn and Fine Gael TD Brian Hayes, Minister O'Keeffe confirmed a reduction between February and December 2009 of 211 in the number of SNAs employed.

The minister has continually refused, however, to state the number of jobs that will be lost when the NCSE review is completed at the end of March. (Sources: Irish Independent; Mayo Advertiser: Dublin People)