EDUCATION Minister Batt O’Keeffe has come in for a lot of criticism regarding cuts in special needs assistants (SNAs). Following the strict criteria set out for SNAs, the minister has maintained that “any child who needs a special needs assistant will get one”.

Parents of children who are losing an SNA are angry and obviously very aware of the many benefits of having one for their child.

Many of these benfits do not fall within the criteria/job description of an SNA – a situation known to everyone but officially ignored.

Mr O’Keeffe emphasises the “care” role of an SNA while parents emphasise the educational benefits. The Department of Education, in its literature, spells out

They are:

* Preparation and tidying up of classroom in which the pupil with special needs is being taught.

*Assisting children to board and alight from school buses. Where necessary travel as escort on school buses may be required.

* Special assistance as necessary for pupils with particular difficulties, eg, helping physically disabled pupils with typing or writing.

* Assistance with clothing, feeding, toileting and general hygiene.

* Assisting on out-of-school visits, walks and similar activities.

* Assisting the teachers in the supervision of pupils with special needs during assembly, recreational and dispersal periods.

* Accompanying individuals or small groups who may have to be withdrawn temporarily from the classroom.

* General assistance to the class teachers, under the direction of the principal, with duties of a non-teaching nature (SNAs may not act either as subsitute or temporary teachers. In no circumstances may they be left in sole charge of a class).

* Where an SNA has been appointed to assist a school in catering for a specific pupil, duties should be modified to support the particular needs of the pupil concerned.

In the vast majority of cases SNAs do have educational input in the classroom.

The department and teacher unions choose to ignore this fact because it suits their various agendas. This is why there is so much annoyance and anger expressed by parents. Schools that have a good record of dealing with special needs children invariably include all interested parties in a coordinated team approach. In the classroom, the teacher delegates certain educational duties to SNAs. All of this runs contrary to the department’s definition of an SNA. In regular classes whose sizes have increased, it is grossly unfair to the classroom teacher to be expected to do all the work required with a special needs child. It is also unfair to the special needs child if he/she does not get the individual attention required.

Of course none of this can be officially acknowledged as teachers’ unions only want “qualified” teachers doing the work (they naturally want to protect their members’ monopoly of education and therefore entitlements, pay, etc).

The department is afraid to go against the unions for fear of upsetting them any further and also because many of the decision-makers within department come from teaching background. It also suits the minister and the Government, in these difficult economic times, to ignore the real educational needs of special needs children in the classroom and hide behind the shield of addressing the care side of things. An Irish solution to an Irish problem.

So what is the role of SNAs? If the minister is going to stick with strict criteria/job description of an SNA, then this problem is never going to be solved.

If teacher unions are unable to accept that “non-qualifed” people can also have an educational role in the classroom, then we are also never going to get this situation resolved.

There is a “care” need for certain special needs children in classroom; there is an even bigger need for improved educational supports for special needs children in the classroom.

Combined with this, the Government needs to put appropriate problem-solving training in place. At present the real training needs of teachers regarding special needs children is not being provided. Teachers need solutions to problems they encounter in the classroom – they have enough on their plate already. Talk to teachers who deal with special needs and they will tell you they do not have the skills to cope and all the training they recieve is theory-based. Added to this, large class sizes are extremely frustrating for teachers because they know they cannot give the one-to-one time they should to certain children.

Politicians talk about inclusion for disabled children in our education system.

The present situation is only reinforcing exclusion.

Parents know what they want for their special needs child: an appropriate, adequate and inclusive education. The minister, the Government and teaching establishment appear to want to ignore their needs.

The protection of the system is more important than the outcomes. Is it any wonder parents are so confused, annoyed and frustrated.

Kieran Kennedy
The Shine Centre
Ballinrea Road
Co Cork

This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Monday, March 15, 2010