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Reduction in special needs assistants concerns parents

Parents and teacher’s unions have condemned a cap on the number of special needs assistants in schools – as well as reduction is resource hours – saying the move will target the most vulnerable.

TEACHERS’ UNIONS HAVE said they are concerned that children with learning difficulties will be disadvantaged by a cap on the number of resource teachers available to schools.

The number of special needs teachers available to schools will be cut as part of the EU/IMF deal, according to the government, meaning that children with learning disabilities who rely on special needs assistants (SNAs) will have reduced support.

The number of resource teachers has been capped at 9,950 for 2011 – however, early indications show that the demand for special needs support is already nearing that target after just a few months into the year, RTÉ reports.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education has decided to suspend the allocation of new resource teachers indefinitely.

Spokesperson for the Special Needs Parents’ Association Lorraine Dempsey told that the cap on SNAs, coupled with a reduction in resource hours, would have a huge impact on the level of care children would be be given. “These are children who can’t do anything for themselves, they might have physical disabilities, or be tube fed or have epilepsy”, she said.

“The question of reducing support is a very emotive topic amongst parents,” said Dempsey, who has a seven-year-old daughter with special needs.

Dempsey explained why it was so important for her daughter, who suffers cerebral palsy and epilepsy, to avail of the support of an SNA: “She has physical disabilities and minor use of her hands, so she’s can’t really do things for herself. And because has certain sensory needs, if she went to pick a book out her bag, for example, she might take it out and start to crumple the pages.”

“She might gag on her food because she doesn’t realise her mouth is already full,” she continued: “When she is out in the playground she uses a walker – if her SNA wasn’t nearby, she could go over a step or hit her head. She just can’t see the dangers to keep herself safe from them”.

Dempsey said that knowing an SNA is available to care for her child is comforting. “She doesn’t see herself as any different from any other child, but it puts my mind at rest,” she said.

She said that the cap on the number of SNAs as well as a reduction in resource hours would mean children in need of various types of support would be overlooked – not just children with disabilities. “There is an allocation for a particular number of resource hours [for children with disabilities] and of learning hours [for children who might not have disabilities but need extra tuition]” she said. “If the number of hours available is cut, that means children with the most severe disabilities will take priority – and those who are falling behind will not get the support they need, which might cause problems for them in secondary school and beyond.”

Dempsey said that neither the government or the IMF had conducted long term cost analysis in to cutting support services, saying that the shortsighted approach to managing resources was a “financial timebomb”.