Q&A: Will pupils lose out in changes to how special needs assistants are allocated?

Concern among groups over ‘rushed’ and ‘partial delivery’ of planned changes

The provision of SNAs to schools will be made by the Department of Education and its agencies using a formula based on how many special education teachers are based in individual schools. Photograph: Getty Images

The provision of SNAs to schools will be made by the Department of Education and its agencies using a formula based on how many special education teachers are based in individual schools. Photograph: Getty Images

 

What do the planned changes mean for parents and children?

Last December the government approved changes which will reform the way 10,000-plus special needs assistants (SNAs) are allocated from next September. SNAs play a crucial role in supporting the care needs of tens of thousands of children in Irish classrooms.

Under the changes SNAs will be “frontloaded” to school at the start of the school year. The advantage, says the Department of Education, is that students will have immediate access to support in their school rather than having to wait for a diagnosis from private professionals or the HSE.

What’s the reason for the change?

The reforms are based on recommendations proposed by the National Council for Special Education, which warned that “radical changes” were needed to improve outcomes for students. It said that the diagnosis-based system was leading to delays accessing support, and was unfair to poorer pupils whose parents could not afford private assessments.

Under the changes the number of SNAs to be allocated to individual schools will be based on the current level of support they receive and the number of special education teachers they have.

Will pupils or schools lose out?

Initially, at least, the plan is that no school should lose out on its existing allocation in the 2020/21 school year. In fact officials say about 1,000 additional SNAs will be allocated to schools next September.

It is uncertain what will happen beyond 2021. Briefing material produced by the department says “transitional” arrangements to move from the current model to a new frontloaded system will involve “managing any redistribution over time”.

It says there will also be an appeals process in relation to allocations. This will allow for a review “where exceptional circumstances arises or where there is a major change to a school profile”.

So, why do groups fear there may be cuts?

Some advocacy group and school managers fear that a rushed and only partial delivery of what has been proposed is on the cards, leaving many key questions unanswered.

The autism charity AsIAm is concerned that a central part of the proposed change is the concept that some school children may not require SNA support but will need access to other in-school supports and services.

These supports are not in place, it says, and it says it is not credible to introduce such a radical change to the allocation model without fully implementing the original plan.

It points to the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act as a reason why it is so concerned. This Act promised comprehensive supports for students with additional needs. It was passed 15 years ago. It still has not been implemented.

So, who exactly will decide what supports pupils and schools will get?

The provision of SNAs to schools will be made by the department and its agencies using a formula based on how many special education teachers are based in individual schools.

This is because research indicates that a school’s special education teacher allocation is the strongest predictor for the level of need for SNAs in schools.

These special education teacher allocations in turn are based on school profiles which take into account factors such as whether a school is disadvantaged; standardised tests; the proportion of students with complex special education needs, etc.

It will be up to school principals and teachers to decide how to allocate these SNA resources to children in the classroom.

What happens next?

The new model is due to be introduced in September. The department has pledged there will be guidelines for schools, information for parents, professional development and in-school workshops between now and then. The plan is to develop a draft circular with education partners in April, with SNA allocations to be issued to schools in May.