How will special needs assistant changes affect my child?

Analysis: Amid parental anxiety, Bruton says changes will boost outcomes for children

There are plans to provide in-school therapy, such as speech and language and occupational therapy. Photograph: iStock

There are plans to provide in-school therapy, such as speech and language and occupational therapy. Photograph: iStock


Will this affect my child’s existing access to a special needs assistant?

Almost 35,000 students with additional care needs – such as autism – are currently supported by more than 14,000 special needs assistants (SNAs), who play a crucial role in ensuring these children are able to attend school each day.

Major changes to the way the scheme operates were announced on Wednesday and there is anxiety among parents about whether supports will be cut.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton, however, has committed to ensuring that every child who need an SNA will still have access to one.

So, what’s going to change in future?

A review of the scheme conducted by the National Council for Special Education has found it acts as a blunt instrument to address the wide range of needs among vulnerable students. It proposes that the role of SNAs will also broaden beyond helping children with care needs – such as toileting, mobility and feeding – to a much broader range of support such as speech and language, occupational and physiotherapy programmes.

SNAs will be renamed inclusion support assistants to reflect their focus on developing students’ independence, and will receive upskilling over the coming years.

In addition, there are plans to provide in-school therapy, such as speech and language and occupational therapy, through pilot projects that will later expand to cover all schools and regional support teams.

It also proposes to front-load support so the majority of posts are allocated ahead of time, removing the need for assessments and allowing for earlier intervention.

Will my child need a diagnosis of a disability to secure access to an SNA?

No. Under the proposed model, authorities say students will have access to necessary supports based on their needs rather than a disability diagnosis.

This, they say, will allow for more immediate and consistent access to supports. A similar model for resource teachers was rolled out last year and seems to be working well.

Parents will be able to appeal to authorities if they are unhappy with the level of support on offer.

What qualifications will SNAs need under the new model?

At present, an SNA needs only Junior Cert-level qualifications. Under the changes, a Leaving Cert will be the minimum qualification level. There will be a national training programme for existing SNAs who do not have the requisite level of relevant training, as well as for SNA, or inclusion support assistants, on appointment.

When are these changes going to be rolled out?

It’s hard to say. Initially, there will be a phased introduction into a number of schools. This, say officials, will provide an opportunity to build confidence in the model and time to make any necessary refinements.

There will also be a consultation phase between the Department of Education and stakeholders, including around appeals.

Last but not least, funding will be needed to allow for fully staffed regional support services; expansion of psychological services; and training programmes.

It’s fair to say that, at the very minimum, it could take several years.