A few days ago our new Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton announced an increase in the number of Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) in the Irish School System. Not just one or two, but 860 new SNAs.
This sounds brilliant, and a lot of it is good news. But I have a fear that there is a lot of plastering over the cracks going on. Why? Well there are three main areas that are glossed over in the reports:
Ireland’s Population is on the increase. The 2008 population of Ireland was 4.46 million, and the 2015 population was 4.63 million according to this site. That’s an increase of 170,000 people.
The CSO estimated that the primary school population would go from 502,300 to 556,500 in the period from 2011 to 2016. In the same period the secondary school population was to grow from 342,400 to 368,600. That’s a total increase of 80,400. I think it’s fair to assume a number of those students will need the help of an SNA, don’t you?
In this Irish Examiner article I found the most misleading statement from the Minister to be that every child who needs an SNA will have one. However, the Department of Education has shifted the goalposts regarding what constitutes “need”. This article from RTE mentions students who need help with toilet or mobility issues. The entitlement is restricted to those students with physical needs.
Yes, students who have physical needs require and deserve support, but what about the student with ADHD, the student who is diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder? What about students with a range of conditions that prevent them from functioning to their best ability in a mainstream classroom?
Students who would have qualified for an SNA ten years ago are denied access to an SNA under the new regime. This fact is being buried under an announcement that highlights a necessary increase, but does not address the very many students who have no support. And this can only hurt their educational achievement.
It’s all about the Money, Money, Money
Minister Bruton has said that the money for the extra SNAs will come from his existing budget. That really doesn’t bode well. The Education budget has seen some brutal cuts over the past eight years. I doubt very much that it will be possible to strip assets from one area without causing significant damage.
As it stands the Irish Government seems to be pursuing a policy of Education by budget rather than by aspiration.
And as for Minister Bruton? He has, rather cleverly, diverted our attention to a good news story so as to distract us to the ongoing affect of continued Austerity in Education.