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Dear Minister For Education....

Posted Jul 17 2011 11:04am
 It was with great shock and sadness that we learned, on the final week of the school year, that our mainstream school was to lose 4.5 SNAs (Special Needs Assistants) by close of business on the final day. Shocked because only one month previous 'access to an SNA' had been granted to the 5 extra pupils due to start in September, yet they incredibly saw fit to reduce our SNA resource by a similar amount a mere four weeks later. In what universe does that make sense? We were saddened for the children who are losing a  valuable resource that can make all the difference in them making a succesful journey through mainstream primary schooling. The feelings of  unrealised potential and loss of some dedicated, hard working individuals is palpable. We also feel sad for the women who lost their jobs without prior consultation or warning.

Our school- and we are by no means alone in this- are now in an impossible position of having to share 9 SNA's  between 21 children with varying needs for the coming school year. You don't need a mathematical degreee to realise that this is not a workable computation. How can SNAs properly and safely support more than one child in different classrooms throughout the school day?

I am not privy to the reasons behind the decision in our school's case...all indications throughout the year were that all would be well...but I am very concerned. I have studied the recent very comprehensive, and incredibly scary, review entitled  A VALUE FOR MONEY (VFM) REVIEW OF EXPENDITURE ON THE SPECIAL NEEDS ASSISTANT SCHEME which is dated June 2011. I'm not sure if this influenced the cuts in our school but it does not bode well for the future. Whether or not this report is implemented I feel it's backing up SNA cuts already made in schools all across the country and clears a path for more.

Therefore it would seem that the only way to fight these cuts is to challenge the Review.

This whole review, in my opinion, has an agenda and most findings, recommendations and  conclusions contained within are brought back to a certain DES circular dated 07/2002 which specifies the role of the SNA as envisaged at that time. The review, for example,  states that the role of the SNA (and  in particular the 'care needs'):  'has expanded since then' and it 'has established that the role of the SNA is not well understood. Schools, parents and professionals now seem to consider that SNAs may be used for administrative, pedagogical, behavioural management and therapeutic duties.'

I do actually agree with some of the  findings in this Review. I agree that the role has expanded and that there may be an over allocation of SNAs, for example. I agree that some SNA's are acting as therapists and doing duties never envisaged in 2002. I agree with the findings... but NOT the conclusions.

The conclusions in the report are flawed beacause the parameters set were too narrow and stifling. When you start from a position of analysing the cost effectiveness of a scheme based on the vision of the role as set 8 years ago what other conclusions can you reach? And as this is a Review it '... should not, as a general rule, recommend an increased resource allocation for the programme concerned...' So, what else can this review do but find that 'the cost effectiveness of the scheme is compromised' other words support the case for cuts in SNA resources?

This review also finds that 'There is evidence that the category related to ‘behaviour is such that students are a danger to themselves or others’ is being misinterpreted and leading to an over-identification of students in this category.' The review advocates the abolition of this criteria or at the very least seriously containing it with more specific, detailed information being demanded.  Given that a high proportion of the children (see p.80 of the report) with SNAs fall under the category of Autism/Autistic Spectrum Disorder or Emotional/Behavioural Disrder it's easy to see why they  arrive at this conclusion.  As the parent of a child with ASD this causes me great concern. As does the list of Special Needs Assistant Duties Identified as Over and Above the Care Role Specified that appears on p.70/71 of this review.

If this Review is implemented then there will be many more SNA cuts and a large number of children, particulary those with Autism or Behavioural Disorders, will go unsupported through the school system. This would be a complete travesty for everyone and we must fight this, vigorously. If this review goes unchallanged then I fear for the education of this whole generation, seriously... I do.

In the quest for VFM we should widen the parameters and consider other things. For example
*Consider why it is that the role has expanded and how succesful that expansion has been?

*Consider why it's a bad thing that SNA's take part in waterfall based training and implement some therapies whilst under supervision? 

Given the fact that there are no therapists to ' bring in' as the review suggests, is this not real VFM in action? This is saving the government a fortune! The fact that it's being funded through the education budget is the real problem.  It is simply not good enough to present one report from one Government Department when there are two Departments responsible for these children. Here's a thought.... DES and HSE: communicate please and join forces to use the available resources more creatively. Just like the SNAs are doing in schools all over Ireland. Right now.

And finally, in order to present you with the evidence of how expanding the role of the SNA over the past 8 years  has been successful and has provided true value for money,  let me tell you a little story... 

Seven years ago there was a lttle boy with Autistic Spectrum Disorder who, due to his behavioural and Speech & Language difficulties and his inability to sit still and learn, was unable to commence Mainstream Primary School. The parents had no choice but to send this little boy,  at great expense to the Government, to a Special Needs School. However, in order to assist her little boy in reaching his true potential his mum took a very long career break from her Good Government Job, thereby saving them a fortune. She may not have contributed to the exchecquer during this time, however she couldn't  avail of  Carer's Benefit in her own right either and due to the inequalities of  Individualisation, her Husband paid higher tax,  so over all a huge financial saving was made. By the Government, not the family.

Through a lot of interventions, the mother's persistence and the child's ultimate desire to take part and succeed, a breakthrough was made. Within months the little boy began a gentle and very supported inclusion programme in his local Mainstream School. He even attained his own SNA, which freed the SNA from the Special Needs School to go attend to the higher maintenance children in that other school. No doubt that looked like an 'over-allocation of SNA'... on paper.

Over the past five years the SNA in the Primary School helped the little boy through his yearly transitions and through each and every day. The consistency of having the same SNA every year is a great help to a child with Autism. His SNA helped him in many ways, every day of the week. For example she
*Helped him stay on task in the classroom.

*She reviewed concepts with him that had already been taught ...Auditory Processing Difficulties mean that children with Autism can't process instructions at the same speed as others and language difficulties make some mathematical concepts very difficult indeed.

*She sometimes acted as a scribe in spelling tests for that she could lessen his frustration levels and allow him to take part and to succeed.

*She has helped him to improve his organisational skills...particularly in latter years in prepartion for second level education.

*She has produced, helped with and worked through Social Stories with him.

*Supervised his social skills learning from his peers in class and on some occasions in the playground. Really, 5, 6 or 7 y.o. children cannot be expected to 'teach' social skills to their Special needs classmates as is hinted at in this Review!

In fact, this SNA did most of the duties mentioned on p70/71 of this Review, duties  that are now considered to be over and above what was intended back in 2002. However, by doing all of this (and more besides) she has helped this little boy to reduce his frustation levels and  behavioural outbursts so that he could stay on task and learn.  The SNA support in this case has resulted in this boy growing up to be  a very happy, contented, independant, confident 11 year old who is now considered to be a valuable and popular member of his happy, contented and educated class of children. Win/Win.

This 11 year old boy, my son, will attend a very mainstream secondary school in 14  months time, as opposed to the more Special Needs orientated one as envisaged back in 2004... times change, you see. He even  has hopes for his future... he wants to be a 'CEO of a Games Incorporation'. So not only may he pay his way in society he may even provide employment for others! A lot of children on the Autistic Spectrum will have skill sets relating to IT, Technology, Mathematics and Science.

This case, and others like it, shows how the expansion of the role of the SNA has been successful and presents true Value for Money. I seriously worry for the 5 year olds with Special Needs commencing in our Education system these days. How many will be 'discouraged' from attending their local mainstream school due to lack of SNA support?  Not every child with Special Needs will make such dramatic progress, of course but with appropriate SNA support most will reach their true potential. Inclusion is considered to be best practise but inclusion without support is a disaster in the making for all children and the education of  a future workforce is seriously at risk.

This Review quotes (and no doubt cherry picks from) a lot of Research Studies and mentions that there has been no research in Ireland in certain categories. True VFM will be attained from researching the success of the expansion of the role since 2002 versus the effects of dramatic cuts in SNA support, as has been happening recently. Therefore I urge all parents of Special Needs children to keep a daily account of their child's progress, or lack thereof, to schedule regular (weekly?) meetings with class teacher and to compare the results of annual Standardised and other tests with previous ones. We should also record any change in behaviour and any situation that puts the child or other children at risk. All this information should be used in our campaign to have our SNAs reinstated.

The Government however, should not dally too long over this issue. We wouldn't like to see a case of neglect or denial of constitional rights before the courts now, would we?

Yours sincerely,

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