Saturday 17 November 2018

Special Needs Assistance scheme to get €524m a year overhaul that promises a better and more joined-up service

Education Minister Richard Bruton
Education Minister Richard Bruton
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

More than 34,000 pupils, who need additional care in the classroom, are being promised a better and more joined-up service, in a major overhaul of the €524m a year Special Needs Assistants (SNA) scheme.

Changes are aimed at making broader professional expertise available to students in school, by giving them the “right support, from the right person  and the right time”, from an SNA up to a therapist.

Reforms will see the establishment of regional teams  of specialists -  to include therapists and behavioural experts - and a minimum qualification, equivalent to a one-year post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) course,  for SNAS.

It should mean that students will have access to in-school speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and behavioural support, while also having appropriately trained SNAs to meet more general needs.

The changes arise from an 18-month review of the SNA scheme by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) .

The review concluded that “SNAs are seen as the answer to everything and work within a scheme that is ‘a blunt instrument’ to address a wide range and variety of needs” and said there was a need for “radical change”.

Education Minister Richard Bruton welcomed the review and said the Government was committed to developing proposals for implementing its recommendations.

Implementation of the new measures is put at €40m a year, plus the cost of the SNA training programme.

Currently, there are more than 14,000 SNAs whose job it is to look after non-tuition needs, such as toileting, mobility, medical, eating, behavioural,  over and above what a teacher can reasonably be expected to meet.

According to the  NCSE ,  the scheme  works well for many younger students and those with more traditional care needs,  but that it could do better  in dealing with more  complex cases.

Some SNAs are undertaking medically complex and invasive procedures and supporting student with extremely challenging behaviours without adequate training and supervision, the review found.

Other concerns included that the scheme was less effective for some older primary, and post-primary, students, who may become overly dependent on their SNA, and who were not adequately prepared for life after school.

The cost of the scheme has spiralled,  up 36pc ( €126m)  between 2011 and 2017, to €476m, with a further increase to €524m in 2018, as greater attention is paid to making schools more inclusive.

A Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, (DEPER) report last year highlighting the rising cost of special needs provision in schools – now a total of €1.75bn -  raised concerns that  the review would be  a cover for  cost savings. NCSE CEO Teresa Griffin said that was not their remit.

A key recommendation is for a greater range of supports and expertise  to be available through 10 regional teams, which will work directly with students and schools.

Each of the  23-member teams would be made up of specialist teachers, therapists, special educational needs organisers and behavioural practitioners.

SNAs will undergo a name change and  become known as Inclusion Support Assistants , with a recommendation for a State-funded national training programme to deliver minimum qualifications for the role.

Students will also have access to support without the need for a diagnosis of disability and schools will also be provided with guidelines on the management of complex and behavioural needs.

The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD)  director Clive Bryne said the access to broader in-school services was central to the overall development of special needs students,  because it allowed for services to be delivered during school hours and ensured that students  received  “integrated, joined-up support services and care”.

He called on the Government to ring fence and allocate the funding needed, starting with Budget 2019.

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