Children with special needs are losing out because of the growing casualisation of the role of classroom-based special needs assistants (SNAs) according to IMPACT trade union. Addressing the joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection today (Wednesday) IMPACT official Dessie Robinson said the absence of secure employment for SNAs was creating a skills and experience deficit, with adverse effects on children with special needs.
Mr Robinson said SNA casualisation was rooted in the ongoing practice of making SNAs redundant when the child they assist leaves school, rather than allocating them to another child elsewhere or placing them on a panel of experienced SNAs to be available when new needs arise. He said the practice of making SNAs redundant was “virtually unique in the public service.”
He also accused the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) of increasingly allocating portions of SNA posts to schools, rather than allocating full-time SNAs, a practice that ran “completely against the spirit of the Haddington Road agreement.” And he feared that SNA posts were now being supplemented with work experience placements when experienced SNAs are required.
“This is an undesirable situation for SNAs whose employment is precarious and uncertain, but it is also undesirable from the point of view of children with special needs as there is a reduction of knowledge, skills and experience within the system. If there were greater certainty surrounding employment it would ensure the retention of the skills and knowledge of SNAs,” he said.
Mr Robinson said the NCSE’s approach reflected the fact that limited resources were being made available to meet increasing demand. “Whatever way it is dressed up, the fact remains that more and more children are having their care needs met by the same number of SNAs,” he said. He also said there were many “unfortunate examples” of school management directing SNAs away from their assigned children to undertake other duties in the school.
He said the cap on SNA numbers was a “marked contrast” to the welcome ministerial decision to increase the number of resource teaching posts. “This was in recognition of the educational needs of these children. But their care needs are not being dealt with in a similar fashion. In some cases we have one SNA looking after the care needs of seven children with special needs,” he told the committee.
IMPACT represents over 6,000 SNAs across the country. Mr Robinson told the committee they see the issue of respect as more important than reward. “It’s about recognition by the school authorities and management that they bring a range of important life skills and experience to their work. I’m afraid that, in many cases, SNAs fail to receive the same parity of esteem as others within the school community,” he said.
On casualisation, Mr Robinson said the education department had stalled the implementation of a June 2012 Labour Court recommendation, which recommended the establishment of a panel of redundant SNAs along similar lines to a long-established teachers’ panel. IMPACT had subsequently won a commitment to establish the panel during the Haddington Road negotiations.
Note to editors
Mr Robinson will give his evidence to the joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection at 1pm in Committee Room 3 of Leinster House.
Submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education Social Protection
Chairperson and members of the Committee,
I would like to begin by thanking the Committee for its invitation and for affording IMPACT this important opportunity to relay at first hand to the Oireachtas members our views in relation to the role of the Special Needs Assistant and our concerns regarding same.
At the outset I would like to advise the Committee that during the last year or so IMPACT has invested heavily in education. We have established a dedicated Education Division. We have recruited additional staff to organise and represent workers in the sector. IMPACT now represents approximately 10,000 education staff of which over 60% are SNAs, and we are increasing our membership all the time.
We have been involved with the grade since its inception and through the process that led to the establishment of the NCSE and that body’s functions in relation to the provision of care and educational support.
Demand for Special Needs Assistants has increased steadily in recent years, while the number of SNAs remains fixed at a figure of 10,575 whole time equivalents. Essentially the number of SNAs is being capped for the fourth year in a row against a very significant increase in demand for this service. In one particular case a special school had an additional five children with severe profound needs and no increase in the SNA allocation. The fact that there has been no change in the overall allocation is in marked contrast to the position regarding educational support where the Minister, after the initial announcement of the allocation figures last June, revised the decision and increased the amount of resource teaching posts, something which IMPACT fully supports. In short, there has been some recognition of the educational needs of these children but their care needs are not being dealt with in a similar fashion. In some cases we could have one SNA looking after the care needs of 7 children with special needs.
We have been asked to address issues relating to the role of SNAs. From my interaction with SNAs on a daily basis I have quickly come to the conclusion that they see the issue of respect as more important than that of reward. In the context of their role this means a number of things. On one level it is about recognition by the school authorities and management that they bring a range of important life skills and experience to their work. I am afraid to say that in many cases – but not all – they fail to receive the same parity of esteem as others within the school community. This can be a source of irritation especially if the SNA is older than the teacher which can often be the case.
Another manifestation of the absence of full respect for the role lies in the insecure employment position of SNAs. Their employment is linked directly to a particular child or children. Consequently, when the child’s attendance at school finishes they are made redundant unless another opportunity has arisen. This is an undesirable situation from the point of view of the SNA because their employment is precarious and uncertain; but it is also undesirable from the point of view of children with special needs as there is a reduction of knowledge, skills and experience within the system. It would, in our view, be preferable that SNAs were treated similarly to teachers enjoying continuous employment but depending on school-going numbers.
We raised the issue of job security citing the commitments contained within the Public Service Agreement (Croke Park Agreement) pointing out that SNAs work situation is virtually unique within the public service as they are subject to redundancy and enjoy a very limited measure of job security. There was no agreement and the matter proceeded all the way to the Labour Court which issued its recommendation in June 2012.
The Court recommended that a redeployment scheme should be put in place. We found it difficult to get the Department of Education and the management bodies to accept and implement the recommendation and it was only in the context of the talks earlier this year, that eventually led to the Public Service Stability Agreement (Haddington Road Agreement), that we obtained a commitment to implement such a scheme. It was only possible to put in place a limited version of the agreed arrangements for this school year. However the Department has committed to a more comprehensive scheme to be established well in advance of the next school year. The underlying point remains though – it would be a much better use of and development of the resource if there was greater certainty surrounding employment and it would ensure the retention of the skill and knowledge gained by the SNA
Our concerns in this regard have increased since the announcement of the 2013/14 allocations. In our view there is an increasing trend on the part of the NCSE to allocate portions of posts rather than a full-time SNA. Instead of improving the employment position of SNAs, if this trend continues unchecked it will lead to more and more casualisation of employment. Apart from anything else this is completely against the spirit of the principles underlying the Public Service Agreement. The Department tries to wash its hands of complaints in this regard citing the independent statutory function of the NCSE. There is a grave danger that in all of this the interests of the child will suffer.
Clearly this approach partly reflects the limited resources that are being made available to meeting the increasing demand. Whatever way it is dressed up the fact is that more and more children are having their care needs met by approximately the same number of SNAs. The current allocation model links the care needs of the child to the presence of the SNA. It seems to us that as things stand at the moment this approach provides a valuable safeguard for parents and families to track that their child is receiving the actual support that has been allocated. While the system is such that some SNAs work with multiple children and others work with just one there have been unfortunate examples where school management seek to direct SNAs away from the care of their assigned children to other duties. It should be said that in many cases harmonious relationships exist within schools and SNAs – no different from teachers and other staff – will be happy to help out in meeting particular challenges. On the other hand, however, there are too many instances where SNAs are being used as a whole school resource. This is completely wrong and deprives the child of a support he or she has been awarded and is entitled to expect. Consideration of any change to the current model of resource allocation must focus on ensuring that the child gets the support that has been allocated to them.
Far from adopting a rigid or restrictive policy IMPACT would like to see the role of the SNA grow and develop. We would like a programme of continuous professional development to be introduced that would add value for the children and the schools while giving added stimulation and a greater sense of worth to the SNA.
Finally, to conclude, I wish to repeat that the issue for most SNAs is respect, not reward. It makes sense that the scheme should be continuously examined given the period of time since its introduction and the significant spend involved. However, we argue that improving job security, avoiding casualization of the work, introducing standard training and professional development, achieving full parity of esteem within the school community by retaining the skills, and protecting the resource for the benefit of the children who need it is the best way to proceed. It would make sense that these things are addressed in a collaborative manner – if there is a willingness on the part of the Department and the authorities to do this, IMPACT will not be found wanting.
Assistant General Secretary