Minister announces ‘exciting’ overhaul of SNA scheme

Children with special care needs will get the right supports at the right time in an overhaul of how they are assisted at school, Education Minister Richard Bruton has pledged.

He intends to implement, on a phased basis, the recommendations of a major review by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), which he asked in 2016 to look at the €500m-plus scheme of special needs assistants (SNAs). Their numbers will have increased 42% to more than 15,000 in seven years next September.

Mr Bruton described as an “exciting approach” the much broader reforms the NCSE proposed to the model of school supports for children with disabilities or severe medical needs.

As well as a revised role for SNAs, who are to be re-named as inclusion support assistants, it recommended these posts be allocated to schools on the basis of size and other factors rather than requiring only those diagnosed with a disability get access to assistance.

 

Crucially, the minister has also accepted the NCSE proposal that other health supports, like occupational or speech and language therapists, be broadly available to all schools rather than children spending extensive periods on waiting lists through the health service. The inclusion support assistants would get additional training to help them deliver these therapies and other specialist medical or care needs for children with more complex health conditions.

A certain number of inclusion support assistants would be allocated automatically to schools based on size and other profiling factors, meaning schools do not have to wait until late in the final term to know their allocation for the following year. But some inclusion support assistants will be provided in addition to that to cater for students with conditions requiring more specific care.

As well as looking after children’s care needs, they would be involved in delivering programmes designed by health professionals like occupational or speech and language therapists. This will require additional training for them, with certain minimum qualifications required as has been introduced for early childhood education staff. But this may improve the situation where high numbers of SNAs have already been undertaking courses at their own expense.

Their main union, Fórsa, which represents nearly 8,500 SNAs, said it wants to enter immediate talks with the Department of Education with a view to providing SNAs with the same job security as teachers and other public servants.

Mr Bruton told reporters that the new system will be good news for their career prospects as there will be more stability within schools due to the front-loading of allocations that will account for a “very large proportion” of the existing number of SNAs.

A pilot system of making speech and language therapists and occupational therapists available to pupils in school is starting in 75 schools and pre-schools from next autumn. This is expected to be widened nationally, while teams of more than 20 specialist teachers, therapists, and special educational needs organisers would work directly with schools in each of 10 regions.


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