Parents protest cuts to special needs supports

The cap on the number of Special Needs Assistants and cuts to resource teaching hours in schools have been described as unacceptable by the Dáil's Technical Group and parents. By Bernard O'Rourke.

Government cuts to education are going to have a detrimental effect on special needs pupils at primary school level, say parents and TDs.

While the Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn has said that these cuts will not have any negative consequences, the parents and teachers who are directly affected have said that the harsh measures being implemented by the current government are already being felt.

A large number of primary schools are going to lose Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) in September as a result of the fact that the government has placed a cap on their number. The Department claims that they “will work with the National Council for Special Education to develop a new system to manage SNA provision within the total numbers allocation”. 

In reality this means stretching the existing number of special needs assistants across an ever growing number of pupils. The numbers attending primary school in Ireland are expected to rise by as much as 8-10,000 per year for the next five years. This growth, combined with a cap on number of SNAs means that as many as 200 primary schools will have to face some kind of cut in their special needs provision. In most cases - contrary to what the government has claimed - these schools have not yet been informed of this. Most will receive word this week, but that is little relief for parents waiting to find out if their children will be faced with a reduction in essential services come September.

Yesterday, Tuesday 21 June, over 100 parents from St. Senan's National School and Scoil Mhuire in Wexford and Griffeen Valley Educate Together in Lucan led a protest outside the Dáil against these cuts. The protest was supported by the Technical Group of Dáil deputies, consisting of Independent TDs and members of the United Left Alliance (ULA). While members of the Technical Group have of a variety of political backgrounds, from right to left, they are united behind this issue. The group are resolutely opposed to the cuts being made by the government, and have called on both the Taoiseach and Minister Quinn to reverse them.

Finian McGrath, Independent TD for Dublin North Central, claims that while Enda Kenny had previously given a commitment that “he wouldn’t cut frontline services to children with intellectual disabilities,” that is now exactly what is happening, as “a Labour party minister rolls out these cuts in relation to special needs.”  

Both the technical group and the parents involved in the protest disputed claims by the government that these budget cuts would not have a negative effect. According to Clare Daly, ULA TD for Dublin North, current intake numbers for children with special needs to primary schools mean that “there are not currently enough SNAs” and with “the cap now in force and hours being cut things are only getting worse”.

One of the parents attending Tuesday’s protest was Sean Breen.His son is a pupil with special needs attending St. Senan's National School in Enniscorty. He expressed his anger that the school will be losing six of its 18 SNAs in September (something the school was only informed of a week ago), with the result that a lot of children, including his own son, now have to share an SNA. Breen’s son has been attending St. Senan's for the past three years, and although “he has made great progress” all that could be “undone by these cuts”.

Previously most of the pupils in St. Senan's had one-to-one access to SNAs, but from September that will no longer be the case. Breen explained that when children receive this kind of help “chances are they will grow up and have a bit of independence”, but “if they don’t get the resources that they need now that won’t happen. I could see my child being put into residential care, because as a young adult he won’t have the education he needs to be independent.”

While the government has shown little intention of backing down on this issue, neither the parents nor the Technical Group are ready to give up either. ULA TD for Dun Laoghaire Richard Boyd Barrett described it as simply unacceptable for Minister Quinn to say that his “hands are tied”, or “that he is being forced to make these savings as a result of the EU/IMF deal”. Boyd Barrett accused minister Quinn of nothing less than “child abuse” for his decision to take away “resource teachers, resource networks, and SNAs that they so desperately need and that the entire class needs.” Boyd Barrett explained that the Technical Group are “appealing to the government to back down on this, to back off on these cuts, to provide the resource hours and the SNAs, and all the resources necessary for our children to have a proper education which is their right.” If they fail to do that they “will be met with a sea of protest”.

On 13 July the Technical Group is putting a motion to combat these cuts before the Dáil, and to support this Boyd Barrett has called for “thousands on the streets, letting the government know that they will not get away with this”. A protest is planned for that day, when far more parents from across the country will come to Dublin to voice their anger.




Image Top: Bernard O'Rourke