THE potential human cost of the decision to cut the number of number of special needs assistants (SNA) in Irish schools has been highlighted by the plight of 11-year-old blind girl, Rebecca Walsh.
As a result of the review of support services by the National Council for Special Education the Castlebar girl risks losing the full-time SNA who helps her at her special school.
The 11-year-old has a lower learning disability and mobility issues which require constant care at home as well as at St Anthony’s Special School in Castlebar, where she has been a pupil since September 2008. The number of SNAs at the school is set to be reduced from 13 to nine, meaning she will only have access to a care assistant for as little as a quarter of each school day.
For her parents, Mandy and Martin from Swinford, Co Mayo, the prospect is one they fear will completely restrict her educational and social progress.
“Rebecca needs the SNA there to help her the whole time. If she’s asked to read her Braille and you leave her alone for a minute, she will just stop as she has a low attention span,” said Mandy.
“Her lack of mobility means that, for safety reasons alone, she is at risk unless somebody is with her constantly. But with four other children in the class, the teacher can’t be expected to be at her side the whole time,” she said. While her communication skills are still poor and she is a few years behind other 11-year-olds educationally, her parents have seen her make significant progress since moving from a mainstream school to St Anthony’s. “It’s a very long road ahead, but if she loses her full-time SNA it will have been a waste of time and resources up to now. We would love to see the day when she is independent enough not to need so much constant care, but that’s not a reality in the next few years,” Mandy said.
Principal Fiona Byrnes said it has been indicated to the school that a 30% cut, meaning four fewer SNAs working at St Anthony’s will result within weeks. The school’s 40 pupils all have mild general learning difficulties, but most have a range of other conditions which include Down Syndrome, attention deficity hyperactivity disorder, autism, cerebral palsy, speech disorders, visual and hearing impairments.
“Staff are managing the education and care needs of pupils well with existing staff levels. The school can accommodate each child’s individual educational and care needs and ensure full access to a wide and real-life curriculum,” said Ms Byrnes.
She pointed to a report last June by Department of Education inspectors which referred to the SNAs’ conscientious work in support of the teachers.
“It’s astonishing therefore to see the NCSE’s special educational needs organiser propose cuts in this staffing level, given the positive comments contained in the recent report,” she said.
Mandy Walsh said she may have no choice but to withdraw Rebecca from school if she does not have a full-time SNA.
“I couldn’t let her sit in class without that support and if the welfare board come asking about her missing school, I will be telling them it’s for safety reasons,” she said.
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