DEAR Minister Bruton,
I hope this letter finds you well, and you are enjoying the good weather we have had recently. My name is Jessica Ní Mhaoláin, and I have written to you a number of times in the past regarding the rights and entitlements of children with special educational needs.
Minister, I write to you from time to time just to give you my opinion as a special education service user of over 20 years, because I think the feedback will assist you. As well as the 20-plus years I spent within the mainstream education system as a student who is registered blind, I also completed my thesis (Masters of Government from UCC, 2016), in the area of service provision for children with special educational needs in Ireland.
The idea of this letter is as a “Back to School’ checklist for you, similar to those that schools send to parents a few weeks before children return to classrooms. August in many homes, as I’m sure it was in yours, meant excitement at the return to school for many children who were excited to see their friends. The arrival of August in my house during school time never meant excitement at returning to school. It just brought panic to my parents and upset to me.
Only in recent years have I had a chance to speak to my parents about the panic August brought to our home - but I was always aware of it. We spoke about it recently actually, when I was creating the August checklist for you. My mum, Sharon, said:
“I don’t miss that, the panic in the house when August came around. We were never sure what you were facing into in September, Jess. Did you get to keep your hours? Were the Dept going to ‘reassess’ you? Your Dad and I would almost be preparing to go into battle because we never knew what was going to happen. The Dept don’t tell the school or parents until it’s too late. We always faced into the unknown in August.”
As a child and teenager, I would pick up on the panic in our house. Inevitably, when I would return to school, we did have a battle of sorts on our hands. My hours of learning supports were cut; my Special Needs Assistant (SNA) hours were reduced; my SNA was repeatedly changed.
I am registered blind and have been since birth, but I have a moderately high IQ. I can - and have - flourished with the right supports in a classroom. My SNA are my eyes in a classroom. So Minister, I’m sure you can appreciate the panic of my parents and the upset on my part when ‘my eyes’ were removed from some subjects in secondary school. Or when an SNA was changed, as the new assistant and child had to learn how to work together all over again, a process that can take months and lead to a child missing out at times. That’s what August meant in my home. As I said above, I have used my research in the area and my own experiences as a service user, to build an August Checklist for you Minister.
1. Full allocation of Special Needs Assistants post before the end of the school year, i.e.. in April ideally, or mid-May at the latest.
2. Allocation of one SNA per child, i.e. an end to shared SNA time.
3. Direct consultation of SNA’s and parents when constructing an Individual Education Plan for a child.
4. Standardised training for SNA’s to address the differing levels of support needed by children when their allocation changes.
5. Compete and publish the review into the SNA scheme before the end of 2017.
Minister, you may recognise a number of these recommendations from the Joint Oireachtas Committee report on the Role of the Special Needs Assistant. Since the report was published in January 2016, with 13 recommendations, a number of the recommendations have yet to be implemented. My checklist has a number of those recommendations, plus two of my own.
I understand that points 4 and 5 within this checklist cannot be implemented right away, but points 1, 2, and 3 can be implemented easily. You, as Minister for Education and Skills, can implement those points by issuing a circular to your Department. Circulars are issued a number of times a year to give direction or to ensure a policy is implemented. These points are exactly what a circular was designed for.
Please, Minister, read through this checklist carefully. I’m urging you, as someone who struggled through the system, to prevent other children having the struggles I and my family, and many others, have had. Three circulars are all it takes to lessen some of the dread parents have when August comes around. And can also show SNA’s, the people who were my eyes in the classroom, how valued and respected they are within the system.
Is mise le meas, Jessica Ní Mhaoláin