In keeping with international trends, current educational policy in Ireland has increasingly moved towards inclusion. Data collected by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD 1999) show that much additional support for students with special educational needs in inclusive settings is provided by classroom assistants. The rapid expansion in the provision of special needs assistant (SNA) support, together with the concurrent increase in the numbers of resource teachers, reflects a growing tendency to focus on one-to-one support for pupils with SEN in mainstream schools. Special needs assistants are now an integral part of the educational system in Ireland (Lawlor 2002).

The purpose of this study was to investigate the role of SNAs supporting pupils with special educational needs in mainstream primary schools in Dublin. Internationally there is a large body of literature pertaining to the deployment of classroom assistants to support the education of pupils with disabilities. However, research in the Irish context to date has been limited to one research study investigating the role of SNAs working in special schools for pupils with mild general learning disabilities (Lawlor 2002). In the context of the huge increase in the numbers of SNAs working in mainstream schools, it seemed timely that some research be conducted into their role in such schools.

This research addressed a number of issues related to the work of SNAs in Irish mainstream schools. It reports upon the current role assigned to them, as perceived by SNAs, teachers and principals. The views of pupils and their parents about the support provided to the pupils by special needs assistants are also explored. A number of aspects of the research findings are described in this article. These findings relate to the population of SNAs working in mainstream schools and the pupils supported by them, the nature of the role of the SNA, and the perceptions of SNAs, teachers, pupils and their parents of the SNA role.

Research design

In this study a combination of research methods was used. In the first phase special needs assistants, teachers and school principals were surveyed to collect initial information on the role of SNAs in mainstream primary schools. The initial survey was followed by a series of interviews, which were used to explore the survey findings in more depth and thereby enhance the research findings.

The survey was concerned with the collection of initial data on the population of SNAs working in mainstream primary schools in Dublin. A systematic random sample of schools was obtained by selecting every fourth school from the complete list of Dublin schools. The survey was conducted by means of a postal questionnaire. A separate self-administered questionnaire was designed for principal teachers, SNAs and class teachers and an individual stamped-addressed envelope (SAE) was attached to each questionnaire, to ensure confidentiality for each respondent. Three hundred and eighty one questionnaires were sent to 127 Dublin schools; a total of 190 completed questionnaires were returned.

In the second phase of the research, interviews were conducted with SNAs, mainstream class teachers working with SNAs, pupils to whom an SNA was assigned, and the parents of pupils assigned an SNA. The interviews provided an opportunity to explore issues more fully and thereby obtain a more detailed perspective on some of the issues raised in the survey. The study was conducted between November 2002 and March 2003.

Special Needs Assistants

The data suggest that the profile of SNAs working in mainstream primary schools in Dublin is very similar to that elsewhere in this country (Lawlor 2002) and to that of assistants working in Great Britain and the USA (Dew-Hughes, Brayton & Blandford, 1998; Riggs & Mueller, 2001). The vast majority of SNAs are female, aged between 26 and 45 and employed in a full-time capacity. Almost 70% of the SNAs surveyed were assigned to one pupil only, and 23% were assigned to two pupils. This research also indicates that most assistants are mothers of school-aged children and are attracted to the job because of the hours of work.

Only 14 per cent of SNAs in this study had more than three years’ experience, whereas almost half of those working in special schools for pupils with mild general learning disabilities had more than three years’ experience (Lawlor 2002). Significantly only 5% of teachers had worked with an SNA for more than two years, with 60% reporting that they had worked for less than one year with an SNA. This difference may reflect the fact that while SNAs have been employed in Irish special schools since the1970s, they are a very recent phenomenon in mainstream schools.


Pupils at all class levels were assigned SNAs. Thirty-one per cent of the SNAs surveyed were assigned to pupils with an emotional or behavioural disorder, and seven per cent were assigned to pupils with severe emotional disturbance. Eighteen per cent of the SNAs were assigned to pupils with a physical disability. Personal SNAs were also assigned to small numbers of pupils, with ten other categories of disability—including autistic spectrum disorder, specific speech and language disorder, a visual or hearing impairment or multiple disabilities.

The role of the special needs assistant

In Ireland the Department of Education and Science (Circular 07/02) sanctions a ‘care role only for assistants and specifies that their duties must be of a non-teaching nature (Ireland 2002). However, research internationally has shown that assistants are adopting a role which is increasingly educational in focus (French & Gerlach 1999; Great Britain 2000; Lawlor 2002). Lawlor found that the role of SNAs working in special schools has changed from a ‘care’ to a mainly educational role.

This research indicates that special needs assistants, teachers and principals believe that SNAs carry out a wide range of tasks in support of pupils and many participants noted that the position requires a high degree of flexibility on the part of SNAs. The research clearly suggests that, as described in Circular 07/02, there is a ‘care’ aspect to the role of SNAs in mainstream schools. However, the data collected indicate that most SNAs are also involved in the teaching and learning process, therefore having an educational as well as a care role. Most SNAs are engaged in duties of an educational nature such as encouraging pupils, clarifying instructions, adapting or interpreting lessons and assisting individual and small groups of pupils with educational activities. Furthermore the majority of teachers and principals agreed that such a role was appropriate for SNAs. This reflects the finding of Lawlor (2002) that SNAs in special schools also adopt a care and a learning-support role.

The data collected suggest that Circular 07/02, which specifies a ‘care’ and ‘non-teaching’ role, does not adequately reflect the actual role of SNAs. Nevertheless teachers, principals and SNAs perceive a clear distinction between such tasks and supervision, working with the whole class or teaching new material. Overall there was agreement that while SNAs help teachers to teach and pupils to learn, deciding what to teach and how to teach it remains the professional responsibility of the teacher alone.

General or pupil-specific

The majority of SNAs, teachers and principals who participated in this research favoured SNAs working in the capacity of a general classroom assistant, rather than an SNA assigned to particular named pupils. Most indicated that, although assigned to specific pupils, SNAs do in fact work in a general capacity. Furthermore, this is the approach preferred by pupils and their parents. Previous research also suggests that this is more appropriate than assigning SNAs to named pupils (Balshaw 1999; Giangreco, Edelman & Broer 2001; Lawlor 2002). Many of the participants in this research identified potential drawbacks to an over-reliance on SNA support for individual pupils. These included the potential stigma for the pupil, the danger that they may develop a ‘learned helplessness’, and the fact that, rather that facilitating inclusion, the presence of an SNA may lead to the pupil being treated differently to their peers. The opinion of many respondents can be summed up in the words of one SNA:

I feel it is good to work with the other children in the classroom, to give them a little extra attention and also to give your assigned pupils a break from you and you from them. It defeats the purpose of giving special attention to a child if s/he becomes dependent on you and resentful if you leave him to work with another pupil.

Similar problems have been identified by other researchers (Ainscow 2000; Rose 2000). Assigning assistants in a more general capacity would also help to overcome the problem of job insecurity for SNAs, since the position would not then be tied to named pupils.

Pupil perspective

The pupils who were interviewed could identify the benefits of having an SNA and described how SNAs assisted them with their work and supported their behaviour in the classroom and at play. They said that the SNAs helped them and their classmates with many aspects of schoolwork, including maths, reading, art, cutting, Irish, geography and history. They explained that the SNA ‘shows them’ their work and helps them to ‘get started’. They named other pupils whom the SNA helped, with one boy naming eleven other pupils who received help from the SNA. In general, the pupils were very positive and recognised the importance of the support for learning and behaviour offered to them by SNAs.

A number of pupils stated that the SNA also helped them to stay out of trouble in the schoolyard—by reminding them of the rules. One pupil explained how the SNA helped him to make friends by encouraging him to play with new pupils. However, it is significant that, although the pupils interviewed were of primary school age, one child could identify several problems associated with having an SNA. He explained that the SNA follows him, unlike another SNA who watches the pupil to whom they are assigned. His remarks indicate that at times the SNA had acted as a significant barrier to the child’s interaction with peers. Clearly it may be valuable for schools to seek the view of the pupil when considering and reviewing SNA support.

Parent perspective

The parents interviewed in this research were very appreciative of the SNAs who worked with their children. They believed that the support of the SNA had a positive impact on their child’s learning, behaviour and social interaction with peers. This finding is in keeping with the limited research which included parents in other countries (French & Chopra 1999; Mencap 1999). Two of the parents interviewed doubted whether their children could have remained in the school without the support of the SNA. The parents interviewed all said that SNAs supported their children in the mainstream and special classes and in the yard. All of them indicated that the SNA, although assigned to their children, should and did work with other pupils in the class. One mother said:

I think they should be able to help other children…But Brian doesn’t know that Kate is there for him all the time and if…she’s allowed to help another child then it takes the stigma out of it that she’s, well, he’s slow and she’s there for him.

SNA Perspective

This research found that most SNAs are very positive about the experience of working in mainstream schools and, like their counterparts in special schools (Lawlor 2002), they believe that their work is appreciated by principals and the teachers with whom they work. Although SNAs in this study were not asked directly whether they were involved in the teaching and learning process, their responses to questions about their duties indicate a high level of involvement in educational activities.

SNAs in this study, like their counterparts in Irish special schools (Lawlor 2002), report a high level of job satisfaction. Eighty-five per cent of SNAs said that working with children was the most important aspect of the job. The high level of job satisfaction also appears to be due to certain aspects of their conditions of employment, such as an incremental salary scale and short working hours. However, some SNAs expressed concern about issues such as the limited opportunities for promotion, job insecurity and the lack of a pension.

Teacher perspective

The deployment of SNAs is a very recent phenomenon in Irish mainstream schools and the majority of teachers have very limited experience of working with an SNA. While teachers were not asked directly whether they welcomed the introduction of the post of SNA, many of those who expressed an opinion were very appreciative of the SNAs with whom they worked. This is in keeping with the findings of other researchers (Balshaw & Farrell 2002; French & Chopra 1999; Rose 2000). Lawlor (2002) also found that the majority of teachers welcomed SNAs, although others had experienced some difficulties working with them. In this research only one of the teacher respondents to the survey reported having difficulty working with an SNA.

Both this research and that of Lawlor (2002) indicate that teachers who work with SNAs consider them to be involved in the teaching and learning process. However, in keeping with findings from other countries (Balshaw & Farrell 2002; French & Chopra 1999) teachers in this study considered duties such as behaviour management and dealing with parents to be inappropriate for SNAs.
Most principal teachers welcomed the deployment of SNAs and considered them to offer support to many pupils, teachers and to the overall running of the school. A majority of principals also believed that it was appropriate for SNAs to engage in learning-support activities. Principals considered a number of duties to be inappropriate for SNAs—namely, administering rewards and sanctions, sole supervision and dealing with parents. In contrast to this, Lawlor (2002) found that 40 per cent of principals believed that SNAs should deal with parents.

In conclusion, this research indicates that, notwithstanding the restrictive guidelines in circular 07/02, most SNAs are adopting a role which has an educational, as well as a care, aspect. This is in keeping with the trend in other countries where assistants offer support for accessing the curriculum. Furthermore this learning-support role appears to have the support of parents, teachers, SNAs and principals.