Opposition grows among school groups to plans for changes of SNA allocation system

Department is planning to ‘frontload’ 10,000 special needs assistants to mainstream schools

The Department of Education  says the move means parents will no longer need to pay for a diagnosis of a disability and schools will not require a formal application in order to access support.

The Department of Education says the move means parents will no longer need to pay for a diagnosis of a disability and schools will not require a formal application in order to access support.

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Opposition is growing to plans to change the way special needs assistants (SNAs) are allocated to support tens of thousands of vulnerable schoolchildren.

The Department of Education is planning to automatically “frontload” more than 10,000 SNAs to mainstream schools in advance of the school year that begins in September.

It says the move means parents will no longer need to pay for a diagnosis of a disability and schools will not require a formal application in order to access support. However, a number of groups representing parents, principals, teachers and schools want the changes to be paused for at least a year to ensure children do not lose out.

The Catholic Primary School Management Association, which supports more than 2,800 schools, said it would also welcome a delay in the planned changes.

“We would strongly urge a pause to allow for a full evaluation of the current pilot [programme] and to ensure the lessons of the pilot inform the implementation of the new model of SNA allocation,” its general secretary Seamus Mulconry said.

“The whole idea of a pilot is to learn so we can avoid unnecessary errors, make improvements to what is proposed and ensure as smooth and effective roll-out as possible.”

Pilot programme evaluation

The National Association of Principals and Deputies said that while it supported the aim of the proposed model, a proper evaluation of the pilot programme was needed.

“Our members are sceptical of the HSE’s ability to have the required resources available to support schools. They fear it will put major pressure on principals and it could be a case of parents who shout loudest getting the resources,” a spokesman said.

The Special Needs Parents Association also said there was a serious risk that system for SNA supports for vulnerable children could end up being diluted.

Lorraine Dempsey, the organisation’s spokeswoman, said: “The new model is supposed to be part of a wider reorganisation of special education supports which were supposed to be in place, but they’re not.”

Down Syndrome Ireland, which also wants the changes paused, said one of its key concerns was a lack of clarity on whether there would be a robust and independent appeals system for parents whose children are not granted the support they need.

“These reviews will need to be external or independent – nothing else will do from our point of view,” said the group’s head of education, Fidelma Brady.

Many individual schools have also expressed concern that the current system is falling short in meeting their needs and worry that a new system could make it worse.

‘Utterly failed’

Some newer schools fear they stand to lose out as the new system for allocating SNAs will be linked to a new model for special education teaching allocations, which is based on school profiles.

North Wicklow Educate Together secondary school, for example, has calculated that its special education teaching allocation has dropped by 50 per cent in real terms under this model.

“It has utterly failed new and growing schools. This has resulted in overworked teachers, under resourced Special Education Needs departments and - most importantly – it has disadvantaged the neediest of our young people during some of their most crucial years,” the school said, in a statement.

The department, which is planning to meet education groups next week to discuss the plans, insists no school will lose out on SNA access in the first year of the new model. In addition, it says, will benefit children by ensuring SNAs will be available in schools before children begin school.

However, Miriam Hurley, principal of the Dalkey School Project national schools , said many vulnerable pupils are missing out on supports under the current system.

“We have a lot of schools which are overstretched with inadequate SNA access and now being asked to take on a new system where it will be guesswork to figure out what new children’s needs are.”