Go-ahead for 860 new special needs assistants

Cabinet to approve plan for bringing total number of school assistants to 12,900

There has  been some  concern in the Department of Education that the role of SNAs had evolved into a quasi-educational role for which many of them were not qualified. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA

There has been some concern in the Department of Education that the role of SNAs had evolved into a quasi-educational role for which many of them were not qualified. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA

 

The Cabinet will this morning sanction the recruitment of a further 860 special needs assistants to work with children with disabilities and difficulties in schools. The move, for which funding will be available by the end of the year, will bring to 12,900 the number of special needs assistants (SNAs) working in classrooms to support the State’s 50,000 teachers.

SNAs act in a care and support role in classrooms, assisting students with special needs and disabilities to function in a mainstream school environment. Their role is not officially an educational one, although in practice many SNAs assist pupils with educational difficulties.

Today’s move will bring the annual budget for SNAs to €425 million. The total budget for special education is €1.4 billion annually, out of a total education budget of €9 billion.

“Our basic aim as a Government is to use our growing economic strength to support a fair and compassionate society,” a Government source said. “Providing better supports for children with special educational needs, so as to help support their full participation and progression within the education system, is an important part of this.”

There is no specific commitment to the recruitment of SNAs in the programme for government, although the document does express the intention to maximise educational opportunities for people with disabilities.

The scheme was first introduced in the early 2000s as more children with disabilities and special needs began to be educated in mainstream schools. By the end of the decade, the number of SNAs had grown to more than 10,000, as many schools retained SNAs when the children to whom they were assigned moved on. A freeze in recruitment during the years of austerity led to cuts in many schools, leading to many local campaigns and inevitable political pressure.

There has also been concern in the Department of Education that the role of SNAs had evolved into a quasi-educational role for which many of them were not qualified.

Department circulars made clear that the role of an SNA was to provide assistance to individual students, not to help with the teaching of the class. One circular specified that SNAs were to provide “general assistance to the class teachers, under the direction of the principal, with duties of a non-teaching nature. (Special needs assistants may not act either as substitute or temporary teachers. In no circumstances may they be left in sole charge of a class.)”

According to political sources, the extra allocation is to prevent a build-up of “assessed need”, in which students have been assessed to require an SNA but none is immediately available.