Special needs support: ‘Our State is failing our children’

School says it is unable to access enough SNAs to support vulnerable pupils

Against all odds, Shay, Jamie and Cillian began junior infants in a mainstream class last September.

A few years earlier, they received an early diagnosis of autism, were non-verbal and had difficulties engaging socially with other children.

"The trajectory did not look good," says Anne-Marie Ford, principal of Scoil Naomh Colmcille, a 175-pupil school in Togher, Co Louth.

However, they flourished in an early-intervention, pre-school programme, where there was expert support and a ratio of one adult to two children.


Clinician reports outlined that they could flourish in a mainstream class with access to the right supports.

“Everyone was thrilled with their progress,” Ford says. “Every milestone that other parents take for granted was a huge achievement for these boys.

“These children are the living epitome of the inclusion and integration model supported by the Department of Education.”

Mainstream access

However, she says the department has refused to give the school an extra special needs assistant to help the boys move into mainstream.

Instead, she says has been told to “reprioritise” its two SNAs across 15 vulnerable pupils in the school who also require additional support to fulfil their potential.

“We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she says. “These are the children who missed out most due to school closures during Covid and they’re missing out again now.”

The Department of Education says SNAs are not allocated to individual children but to schools as a school-based resource.

“SNAs should be deployed by the school in a manner which best meets the care support requirements of the children enrolled in the school for whom SNA support has been allocated,” it states.

Speech difficulties

Ford says she has been forced to take an SNA away from Caitlin, an eight-year-old pupil with Landau Kleffner syndrome which is linked to seizures and speech difficulties, in order to allow the boys to come to school.

An ambulance has had to come to the school on two occasions because of Caitlin’s epilepsy.

“I’m living on my nerves,” says Ford. “There are a number of children who are missing out along with Caitlin and I feel persecuted being put in this position. It is not ethical, it is not right. There is nothing flexible or positive about this.”

Ford said some parents in the school are afraid to send their child to mainstream despite their progress and potential, as they are worried they will not get the support they need.

Another family is planning to relocate to Northern Ireland, she said, in a bid to give their child the best chance of reaching their potential.

“Our State is failing our children, this is wrong,” she said.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent