December 2013: Submission on SNAs to Oireachtas Committee

The ongoing experience of our members compels us to draw the attention of the Education Committee to the worsening situation for young children with special needs, their parents and the pre-school services that work with them.

December 2013: Submission on SNAs to Oireachtas Committee

We in Early Childhood Ireland, as a membership based organisation that promotes quality care and education in the early years, very much welcome the recent call for public submissions on Special Needs Assistants (SNA) in primary and post-primary schools. However, the narrow focus on formal education as determined by the remit of the committee misses the opportunity to highlight or address the needs of children before they enter school. Special Needs Assistants provide vital support to young children in pre-school settings as they make the first transition from home, begin to socialise and make friends and engage in learning. Benefits for and investment in children with special needs at primary and post-primary levels are best maximised where they have had access to SNAs in pre-school services. There is ample evidence to highlight the benefits of quality pre-school education for all children, but many children with special needs can only avail of early education with the help of a SNA.   Early Childhood Ireland has 3,300 members across the country who provide full day care; pre-school; Montessori and after school services. The organisation represents 75% of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) services in Ireland, of whom 71% report having a child/children with special needs attending their services on a daily basis.   The ongoing experience of our members compels us to draw the attention of the Education Committee to the worsening situation for young children with special needs, their parents and the pre-school services that work with them. We are calling for policy reform and are asking the Education Committee to broaden the scope of their deliberations and consider the provision of Special Needs Assistants (SNA) for children with special needs as an equitable, inclusive system of preschool education.   A growing and well-documented body of research attests to the benefits for all children of an inclusive and supported approach to education in early childhood. Within a quality pre-school setting, the child with special needs is supported to participate in the daily life and activities of the service, benefitting them socially, emotionally and cognitively through the curriculum and relationships with others. The quality pre-school experience also serves to provide a solid basis for future transitions the child will navigate and manage. A rich and diverse pre-school setting brings together children with differing levels of abilities, strengths and interests and this begins the process of creating a respectful and inclusive society for everyone.   The current situation is that there are 4,600 notified ECCE services in the country catering for approx. 150,000 children every day. A national Pobal Survey (2012) suggests that 45% of ECCE services have at least one child with a diagnosed special need, while an Early Childhood Ireland member survey (2012) highlighted 71% of services reporting having at least one child with a special need both diagnosed and undiagnosed. Access to SNAs is variable and shrinking with HSE, parents and childcare services now trying to fund this important role. There has never been a responsibility or commitment across HSE regions (or previously Health Boards) to providing SNAs to children in pre-schools. The provision of SNAs to preschools has been at the discretion of each HSE region with no access to these supports from the Department of Education and Skills.   In 2010 a free pre-school year (the Early Childhood Care and Education [ECCE] Scheme) was introduced universally, providing every child, regardless of family income or ability to pay with an entitlement to 15 hours early learning for 38 weeks of the year prior to entry into primary school. This was a wonderful and welcome development for all children but particularly for those with special needs who could avail of the scheme divided over a two year period. Consequently from 2010 onwards greater numbers of children have been taking up and benefitting from early education (96% uptake of eligible children) and this applies to children of all abilities and backgrounds. The latest Growing Up in Ireland data reports that approximately 25% of families with children starting school in 2012 said they would not have been able to send their child to pre-school in the absence of the scheme and this number rose to 39% of families with the lowest of income levels.   In summarising the context for children with special needs:

  • All children now have a right or entitlement to a pre-school education
  • Greater numbers of children with special needs are accessing pre-school services
  • Delays to have young children assessed is problematic with 61% of children awaiting assessment

  ‘One of my biggest concerns at the moment is the number of children leaving play school without an assessment of need. The window of opportunity has been missed. We have parents, who can’t afford to pay for a private assessment, are now being forced to do so because the system has let them down. Something has to change.’ Community Provider, Dublin  

  • No Department or body currently has responsibility to provide SNAs for children participating in ECCE albeit that this is a universal scheme to provide early education opportunities for all children
  • Of those pre-school services with one or more SNAs (463 out of 3,137 survey respondents, Pobal, 2012) approx. 33% are funded through HSE; 33% are funded through charitable bodies such as Enable Ireland; and 33% are funded through parents, services and others
  • Parent’s ability to pay for SNA support has lessened in recent times
  • EECE services struggle to be sustainable and have no capacity to fund or part-fund SNA posts
  • Pre-school ratios have increased following budget 2012 making additional demands on staff

  The current situation for pre-school services working with children with special needs is extremely difficult. Service providers identify that funding for specialist equipment, specific training and SNA support is almost non-existent. Feelings are running high in early childhood care and education settings because people care and are committed to their work with children with special needs. Our members are frustrated by a system that does not adequately, consistently or in a timely manner provide adequate resources or supports for children at a time of their greatest development and at time when great gains can be made.   ‘Early intervention for children and families is essential and also makes economic sense. Here needs to be increased investment in early year’s services to provide services and staffing needed to meet the needs of the children. At present SNA’s are only available to primary schools even though early years services and childhood professionals are in a better position to provide early intervention, support and referral for assessment. Community Provider, Kilkenny   Early Childhood Ireland is asking the Education Committee to open discussion on the provision of SNAs in notified or registered pre-schools for children with special needs to ensure that children’s potential and quality of life is maximised and that government investment in the ECCE scheme provides best outcomes for young children.

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