Sunday 18 February 2018

Special needs cull 'will hurt vulnerable'

ine Kerr Political Correspondent

HUNDREDS of special needs assistants (SNAs) face losing their jobs under the forthcoming draconian Budget.

The number of SNAs could be cut by up to 5pc -- a move that would affect the country's "most vulnerable" children, according to trade unions and disability groups.

There are more than 10,000 assistants providing one-to-one help to children with special needs in our primary schools.

But the Department of Education is concerned that some SNAs are being used for secretarial support and maintenance duties because the pupil they assisted has now left the school.

As part of its efforts to cut €230m from its €8bn-plus education budget, the department is anxious to weed out the SNAs no longer required in individual schools without wielding the axe across all schools indiscriminately.

"There was an open cheque-book during the boom for this area, but it can't be maintained now," one source said.

Moves to reduce the number of SNAs comes only a year after some 100 special needs classes were removed from the system.

The department is now facing a backlash from trade unions and disability groups if it pursues plans to remove hundreds of SNAs from the system.

Chief executive of Barnardos, Fergus Finlay, last night claimed there had already been a "huge cull" of special needs assistants over the last two years.

He argued the Department of Education was taking this approach because it's the "easy thing to do" with so many SNAs on temporary contracts.

"It's getting to the point where it's almost an interference with the constitutional rights of children because you can't provide a proper education without them," Mr Finlay said.

Further cutbacks will have a "terrible setback" and force children into special schools rather than mainstream schools.

Head of the Irish Primary Principals' Network (IPPN) Sean Cottrell also criticised plans to slash the number of assistants. He insisted schools were not using SNAs for "ancillary works" or "extra duties".


Every Special Education Needs Organiser (SENO), who liaises between schools and the department, can verify the necessity for each SNA in each individual school, Mr Cottrell said.

"It's completely unbelievable that they would move to reduce the number of SNAs. Any principal or parent with a child with special needs knows the value of an SNA. They open up the world of the child," he said.

Meanwhile, the student registration fee is still under intense debate ahead of the Budget, with the Green Party insisting on a smaller hike than the mooted €1,000.

Sources have speculated the registration fee could be split into a "service charge" and a "student contribution" or simply renamed.

Dividing the payment into two categories would enable third-level colleges to break free of having to direct the funding into "student services" only.

The fee, which was introduced following the abolition of third-level fees in 1996, has since undergone a 780pc hike. It has risen from €190 to €1,500, following a 67pc hike in 2009 alone.

Irish Independent

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