Special needs assistants to seek higher pay for more responsibilities

Fórsa says role of SNAs likely to be broadened under reforms

The role of special needs assistants is likely to broaden significantly under a new support scheme for schools. Photograph: iStock

The role of special needs assistants is likely to broaden significantly under a new support scheme for schools. Photograph: iStock

 

The union representing thousands of special needs assistants (SNAs) in schools is to seek better terms and conditions for members if they are given increased responsibilities.

An estimated 15,000 SNAs support tens of thousands of students with additional care needs, such as autism, each day.

Under a new school inclusion model, the role of the SNA is expected to broaden out from supporting care needs – such as toileting and feeding – to assisting with delivery of speech and language or occupational therapy.

Fórsa, which represents SNAs, told members at a conference in Carrickmacross on Thursday that the Department of Education had belatedly agreed to consult with the union over “far-reaching” changes for schools and students.

Fórsa senior official Andy Pike said the union would engage in consultation with a view to improving services to children with special needs, while protecting SNAs’ working conditions.

But he said he would seek to renegotiate the SNAs’ contract “to establish parity with conditions of service for others in education and address long-standing problems” if the new model led to increased responsibilities and work demands, as expected.

Last month, Minister for Education Joe McHugh announced his intention to pilot the proposals in 75 schools in Kildare and Wicklow during the coming school year.

Mr Pike also welcomed plans for a voluntary national training programme for SNAs, which would “take the first significant step towards professionalisng the role of the SNA within our schools sector”.

Plans to frontload allocations of SNAs to schools “could reduce the incidence of precarious employment experienced by many SNAs”, he said.

The union has frequently complained about the timing of the announcement of annual SNA allocations to schools, often late into the summer preceding the new school year.

Potential

Speaking at the conference, Adam Harris, chief executive of the autism charity AsIAm, said he supported the new model which he believed had much potential.

But he said the proposed model lacked clarity around what the department would recognise as an “additional care need”.

“Forty per cent of the present SNA allocation goes to autistic students and I would be deeply concerned about any move away from this,” he said.

“In a number of drafts of the report, it seemed to rule out a lot of the needs of our community – such as pervasive anxiety and poor executive functioning skills – as grounds for SNA support,” he said.

Mr Harris said he had been assured this would be amended by means of further consultation.

“Of particular importance and concern is the need for an independent appeals process open to parents,” he said.

“If we are to move away from a diagnostic-led model of support, there must be a strong system in place to ensure that when clinical needs are overlooked or dismissed, that families have recourse to a clinical expert to make a final decision.

“It is unfair and unacceptable to make principals the final arbitrator in this regard.”