'Value' probe sparks fears of cuts in special needs budget

The Irish Independent

A value-for-money investigation has been ordered into a €300m scheme which employs 18,000 special-needs assistants in schools.

There is now one special-needs assistant (SNA ) for every six primary and secondary teachers in the country and there are fears that the probe will make it more difficult for some special-needs pupils to get access to full SNA help that they need in the future.

The Department of Education and Science has begun an audit of the scheme, which now provides the equivalent of 10,000 full-time jobs, amid concerns that spending is rising too rapidly.

It comes as huge pressure mounts on Minister Batt O'Keeffe to curb spending in education -- he has already cut pay budgets by 3pc in higher education and school-completion programmes and signalled a financial review of universities.

SNAs give assistance to thousands of pupils who have physical, emotional or other difficulties such as a hearing or sight impairment, a disability, autism or attention-deficit disorder.

Some pupils need the full-time services of an SNA in school or get access to an SNA for a number of hours per week.

It is known that a growing number of pupils with emotional and behavioural problems are now getting SNA hours.

The department was at pains to stress that the audit was planned two years ago, long before any sign of a downturn in the economy. But unions and school managers fear that, given the different economic climate, it will be used as a way to keep the lid on growing costs and jobs in the area.

Visited

A total of 100 schools -- 80 primary and 20 post-primary -- have been selected at random and are being visited between October and February next.

The selected schools will be visited by the special education needs organiser for the area, the local national educational psychologist and a special education needs inspector.

Philip Mullen, the IMPACT official who deals with SNA staff, said it was not exactly clear what the audit was intended to achieve in the present circumstances.

He said that once the decision was made some years ago to "mainstream" special-needs pupils, a system of SNAs was put in place. The result was that children who in the past would have remained at home were now being helped to realise their educational potential.

It is known, however, that both IMPACT and SIPTU, which also represents SNAs, have concerns that some schools use them to undertake tasks that are not strictly within their remit -- in one case an SNA was asked to paint railings -- while in others they have been asked to undertake secretarial duties.

Although most of the SNAs are at primary level, some 2,000 are now in post-primary and the number at that level is set to grow significantly under current arrangements.

Some second-level principals apparently feel that the money being allocated would best be used to appoint more educational psychologists or teachers.

Clive Byrne from the National Association of Principals and Deputies said there was a lack of clarity as to what the role of SNAs in second level should be.

But the association welcomed the audit and would co-operate fully with it. He pointed out that not all second-level students with special needs wanted an SNA to help them at second level.

 

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