The past decade has been significant in terms of change in special education in Ireland. When the Special Education Review Committee (SERC) first met in September 1991 to consider the whole area of special education, children with special educational needs (SEN) were being placed in mainstream classes in schools where there was no in class support for them. The wide-ranging recommendations of the SERC Report (1993) suggested the need for special education initiatives at national, regional and local level. At school level it recommended a number of supports to the child with SEN in mainstream classes. Primarily, these were the appointment of resource teachers to provide specialist teaching and Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) to assist with care (SERC 1993, 238).
Assistants in class were not completely new to the Irish education system. Childcare Assistants had been introduced in the 1970s, mainly to special schools, and their role related to the physical care of children (Ireland 1976).
Another form of assistance in classrooms was provided through FÁS Community Employment schemes (CE) in the 1980s. Many schools availed of these schemes and trainee classroom assistants were assigned to assist teachers in the classroom in a general way. The deployment of SNAs to mainstream classes, specifically to support children with special needs was however new.
Increase in numbers
Initially the procedure for the appointment of SNAs to schools was through the local school inspector who examined and approved the application. Lawlor reports that in 1998 there were just 299 SNAs in the system. However, an announcement by Micheál Martin on 5 November 1998 of an automatic entitlement to resources for children assessed as having a special educational need brought a dramatic increase in the number of SNAs in schools. The number of full- and part-time posts now stands at more than 5500- A new procedure of application was outlined to schools in Circular 07/02. This circular also contained an outline of the role of the SNA which remained unchanged from that described in 1976 for the original Childcare Assistants.
Research in Ireland
Current Irish research relating to SNAs examines roles, deployment, management and training in the context of international experience (Lawlor 2002; Logan 2003; INTO 2003). Some of this research is outlined in the accompanying article by Anna Logan. This research give us insight into the implications for children, teachers and school management of the arrival into schools of more than five and a half thousand new personnel with a variety of qualifications and what Lawlor and Cregan (2003) describe as a ‘thirty-year-old’ job description. It helps us to understand the challenges to teachers, who traditionally have worked alone and now must consider collaborating with another adult. It also helps us understand the challenges to the SNAs who arrived in the system without specific training.
Training and qualifications
The basic requirements for SNAs outlined by the Department of Education and Science (DES) is that they hold the Junior Certificate Examination. In addition to this, some SNAs have additional qualifications such as NCVA qualification in childcare (INTO 2003, 46). It also appears that there has been a level of transfer from FÁS / CE schemes for classroom assistants to SNA posts. An opportunity to engage in training specifically designed for SNAs came when the School of Practical Childcare (Blackrock, County Dublin) established a Certificate Course, and later a Diploma Course for SNAs. These courses were organised in partnership with the Froebel College of Education. In addition to this, individual Education Centres around the country took the initiative and organised in-service courses for SNAs working in schools in their catchment areas.
In October 2003 a new initiative in training for SNAs was launched. This initiative is the result of collaboration between the In Career Development Unit (ICDU) of the DES, three colleges of education (Church of Ireland College of Education in Rathmines, St. Angela’s College in Sligo and Mary Immaculate College of Education in Limerick) and the 21 Education Centres around the country. An initial twenty-hour standard introductory course has been designed by a team with representatives from the colleges and the education centres; this is currently being delivered nationwide in the education centres. Having completed this introductory course, SNAs can apply to complete a certificate course in one of the three named education colleges. These courses are available free to SNAs who are employed in a full-time capacity only, in primary, post-primary and special schools.