The needs of students with special needs are extensive, but are not being met at present. Although SNA numbers remain the same this year, Nicole Casey examines if this is really enough

Single parents, the elderly, social welfare recipients, and even students. These are all groups of people we routinely view as the most harshly affected by the current economic climate. But a group we never cast a thought towards at budget time, and year round, are the children with special needs.

The term Special Needs Children encompasses everyone from babies to teens, and refers to an array of diagnoses, including (but not limited to) Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, and Asperger’s syndrome.

The educational requirements of children with special needs can range from needing a helping hand in certain subjects, to requiring full time supervision and assistance by a qualified Special Needs Assistant (SNA). Some children suffer with such severity that they must attend an entirely separate school.

Not only are special needs children suffering the effects of the harsh economic downturn on their own merits, with reduced grants, but when areas such as education are targeted by the government, children with special needs suffer more than the average student.

The number of SNAs in schools is being reduced and waiting times for assessment are increasing. But the average class size is also increasing, with adverse effects on students with special needs who may require more specific attention than the average schoolchild.

Although total spending on special education rose from €468 million in 2004 to €1.3 billion in 2011, this was never enough to satisfy the needs of special needs students, and now that dramatic reductions are taking place, these students are left even worse off.

A 15% reduction in resource teaching hours for children with rarer conditions coupled with a cap on full-time SNA posts has seen a detrimental effect on the educational experience for special needs children.

Education Officer for Down Syndrome Ireland, Patricia Griffin, believes the reductions are more severe than publicised, especially when taken off paper and applied to real life situations. “Though staff numbers are not being reduced [this year], pupil numbers have increased by approximately 10% [meaning] resources have been cut by a further 10%.”

Special Needs Assistant in Coláiste Phradraig Lucan, Patrice Burchael believes students with special needs are suffering in ways most people don’t even realise. “When the number of SNAs allowed in schools was reduced, the workload for the remaining SNAs rose. There are still the same number of children requiring special attention, but a reduced number of SNAs.”

Burchael also believes the reduction in SNAs is having a knock on effect on resource teachers. “There are so many children to work with and split your time between that resource teachers have had to take on some of the burden.

“They now have to do some of the work SNAs don’t have time to complete, while also teaching resource classes with a larger number of students present. Now, there are more children in the room than a resource teacher can readily cope with.”

Conditions such as ADHD and autism are only really coming to the forefront in recent decades, and this can be seen through government policy. In was as recent as the early 1990s that government policy relating to special education changed, moving away from segregated schools towards providing education for special needs students in mainstream schools.

Burchael is not a fan of the segregation of students with special needs. “It’s wrong. Every child is entitled to go to mainstream school, providing the resources are there to cater for their needs. It is up to the government to provide these resources and allow children with special education requirements the same experiences as the average student.”

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has held the consistent position that every child who needs an SNA should be provided with one, and it is hoped that additional SNA posts will be advertised for the coming school year. This prospect will be welcomed by parents and teachers who have been consistently lobbying for an increase.

However, the role of an SNA can only provide so much for students with special needs, and an overwhelming workload is only one of many issues SNAs must overcome.

According to Burchael, resistance within the school can be a major issue for many SNAs. “In any school I’ve ever worked in, there are teachers who don’t agree with SNAs…who don’t believe in special needs. Thirty years ago, you didn’t hear of ADHD or Asperger’s syndrome. Older teachers don’t want SNAs in their classrooms, and some don’t even want special needs students there.”

With this closed mindedness of some older generation teachers, can students with special needs ever hope to reach their full potential?

Burchael thinks not. “Take, for example, subjects that involve a lot of note taking. Students with autism have so many other things going on in their head, they can’t keep up with the note taking. Without help, they can’t possibly hope to keep up with the other students in their class. Even with the help of an SNA, working at the same pace as the average student is difficult.”

Parents of children with special needs are banding together through the internet and social media and fighting harder than ever before to ensure their children get the same entitlements as any other child attending school.

With SNA numbers remaining the same for this year, and a hopeful increase for the next school year, things are looking up for these students and their parents. However, it will take a lot more time, money, and SNAs, to bring the rights of students with special needs up to par with their counterparts.