“If we get accredited, it feels like you put the work in and you achieved something,” SNA Linda Sullivan said.
MORE THAN 2,800 people have signed a petition calling on the Department of Education to formally accredit the first national training programme for special needs assistants in University College Dublin.
The petition is asking the Government to “ensure the professional development of SNAs” by giving the 500 students currently enrolled in the programme a recognised educational qualification, rather than a certificate of completion issued by UCD School of Education.
“If we get accredited, it feels like you put the work in and you achieved something,” says Linda O’Sullivan, an SNA at St. Fergal’s Boys National School in Finglas Dublin and a participant on the programme. “You get a certificate from a one-day course. But the work that goes into this is intense.”
The first dedicated national programme for SNAs, this online course runs for a duration of ten months and spans five modules, including professional development and inclusive education.
Announced by the Minister for Special Education, Josepha Madigan back in late September, its creation came after the need for training was identified by the National Council for Special Education in a 2018 review of the SNA scheme.
Funding was provided entirely by the Department of Education, which allocated €2.45m to the pilot over a four-year period. As such, for those looking to avail of the 3,500 spaces available across this timeframe, participation comes at no personal expense. Due to the lack of formal accreditation however, the first batch of SNAs warn that its appeal may fade fast.
“They’re talking about so much funding,” says Linda. “But if they don’t accredit this, there’ll be no SNA who does this course. This won’t do well for them.”
“It’s a sacrifice of my time,” says Louise Conlon, an SNA of five years who is currently on the programme. “I put in a good six hours a week minimum; an hour webinar once a week and then 90 minutes of online work and I’m working myself, like other SNAs. We have families and different commitments.
“For this level of work,” she continues, “I couldn’t put anyone else under the amount of work, only to come out with a certificate of attendance at the end.”
“We all got very excited about the thing,” says ‘Sarah’, an SNA in Kildare. “I suppose it was going to open up the SNA role as a valid career choice. It’s so in-depth and takes what we did in level five and six courses and develops those theories.”
“It’s a course paid for by the Department,” she continues. “And certainly, it’s not going to take away from our roles. But having started it, there’s so much work. Any of the girls who did a level seven in St. Angelas in Sligo said this is far more intense than the level seven they completed.”
When first announced by Minister Madigan, she explained that the certificate “may serve as a stepping-stone to further education and qualification.” From the SNAs perspective though, this is seen as insufficient a reward for their efforts.
“We’re not looking for it to be accredited to get more pay,” ‘Sarah’ explains. “We want the recognition, not just for the 500, but every SNA who wants to complete it in the future and who can say, this will help my job.”
According to a Department of Education spokesperson, formal accreditation on the National Qualification Framework was not a requirement. The NCSE recommendation was for a training programme to be provided for both existing SNAs without the requisite training and new SNAs on appointment. As such, the programme’s aim “was to provide training and not a training qualification.”
Linda however argues that many of the participants already hold either a level five or six qualification. “A lot of SNAs have done the original SNA training and have been on the job a long time,” she says. “They wanted the next educational step here. There are masters for teachers who have degrees in teaching and professional development. But there’s nothing like that for SNAs.”
In January, when the course started, the understanding was that accreditation would potentially be given within the first year, but the Department has not indicated as to when this might occur.
A spokesperson explains that the matter is to be considered as part of a review, but notes, “as this is the first programme, it is appropriate to take the time to review outcomes which will inform the future approach to ongoing training and professional development.”
“Is that going to happen when we finish the course or when the next people start in September or in two years?” Linda asks. “I get that they’re looking to see how we get on, but it must be the only course in a university where participants don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“The idea that it would be accredited at some point in the future is quite insulting to the 500 SNAs doing it at the minute,” says the Social Democrats TD, Gary Gannon. “It’s almost like these are test cases to see if it’s worth their while or not.”
Further support for the SNAs has been forthcoming from the UCD Student Union, whose Welfare Officer Ruairí Power said, “it is a fair expectation that it would be accredited on the QQI scale.
“This is a new scheme, but really, this is detail that should’ve been worked out prior to advertising the scheme in our view.”
A UCD Communications Office spokesperson states that the programme “is being delivered at a level of content, assessment and governance that it will meet accreditation criteria if the programme is subjected to such criteria.”
“The Department of Education has required that the programme should be offered on a non-accredited basis and the School has complied with this requirement of the final tender contract.”
“There’s a similar course in UCD for health and safety, and they’re accredited to level seven,” Linda points out. “It’s coming down to the fact that we’re SNAs and they are afraid if they accredit the course, we’ll have to be paid accordingly.”
This claim, Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin put before the Dáil in early March while discussing the accreditation, saying, “the suspicion is the Department does not want to sanction such accreditation because it would mean SNAs would have to be properly paid.”
As of 1 October 2020, the SNA payscale is between €24,602 and €39,087, while the long service increment standing at €40,590. This stands in notable contrast to the payscale of teachers, which is between €35,790 and €70,795, excluding qualification allowances.
The gap here stems from the defined role of the SNA in Irish classrooms, which the NCSE says is non-teaching in its nature.
An SNA is recruited to assist in the care needs of pupils with a disability in the educational context through a variety of means, including assistance with communication, mobility, feeding and the administration of medicine.
Under the Education Act of 1998, the classroom teacher is primarily responsible for the education and care of all pupils, and as such, SNAs serve under the guidance and supervision of a schools principal and/or its teachers.
Disparities have emerged because of their defined role as a non-teaching assistant. Trade union Forsa recently revealed that SNAs are denied equal provision of health and safety leave while pregnant. Whereas a teacher can take full leave for the duration of their pregnancy if deemed to be at risk in their work environment, SNAs are only entitled to 21 days, meaning they are often required to use other leave to cover the long-term absences.
Professionalisation of the role, Gary Gannon says, could go some way to ensuring improvements were made in their standard of treatment.
“If they were given a professionalised standing, it would mean there would be uniformity in terms of what they would have to do across every school,” he says. “At the moment, an SNA can nearly be asked to do anything independent of whatever skills they have. The role is undefined. The pay is ridiculously low for the work they’re asked to do.”
“It’s like you’re the ugly sister in the Cinderella story,” says Linda. “We speak of equality and inclusion, but teachers are held in esteem by the Department, while SNAs are just seen as less than. It’s bizarre and it’s only highlighted since the lockdown that we’re treated differently.”
The first national lockdown was for her, and many other SNAs “a complete shock,” she recalls. “Nobody thought the schools would close.”
“There were discussions of re-deployment,” Louise says. “I did a continuing professional development course on how to be professional online and help children on a Zoom call, but in April, when I spoke to my principal, I was told I wasn’t in a position to help.”
“Coming back in September, I could see the regression in the children” Linda notes. “Some who had made progress with speech, if they were non-verbal, had regressed. They had no Occupational Therapy, no Speech and language therapy, no services.”
It was during the second national lockdown however that a light was shone on the slew of issues faced by Irish SNAs. When in January, the question of re-opening schools for children with special needs became a heated debate, Linda says she and many of her peers were maligned during the discussions.
“We were the scapegoat,” she says. “The Minister of Education said she took the side of the special needs parents and children, but where are they when SNA jobs are cut or special needs kids have no school place? They jumped on the hot topic, and we were trying out best, we didn’t deserve this.”
Linda was one of the most vocal representatives for SNAs at this time and spoke in defence of their fear of returning to a classroom setting while reported daily cases of Covid-19 were in the thousands.
“What frustrated me was when we had advocates coming out on behalf of charities who singled out SNAs as if we were the bad people,” she recalls. “They were expecting us to go in. We’re not nurses or doctors. We never asked to be on the frontline, but here we are. The special schools are open again and we do hope it stays that way.”
“These are people we trust,” says Gannon. “They felt hurt, patronised, dismissed and the victims of hypocrisy surrounding the public commentary, but talk about the importance of their role stops when we actually talk about the issues we could deal with to actually help them.
“If the role is so important, pay them properly, give them the qualification they deserve. Don’t just tell us they’re critical when we want to take advantage of their position.”
Accreditation of a single training programme is not the panacea, the SNAs all agree, but it is the first step towards professionalising the role, which each insists they are committed to, despite present standards.
“I’m an SNA nearly five years,” Linda says. “When I’m doing the job, people often say, ‘wouldn’t you like to be a teacher?’ Or ‘would you do something else?’ But I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing, because I can see the difference you can make.
“Every SNA I know has trained in different areas really pertaining to the job,” ‘Sarah’ says. “We pay for the courses ourselves, but we do it because… it sounds cliched… but because we love our jobs and what we do. We want to better ourselves and help the children and add value to what we do.”
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