By Emma O Kelly, RTÉ’s Education Correspondent

I spent the best part of a day last Monday phoning primary schools that had recently applied through JobBridge for Special Needs Assistants. I didn’t manage to call every school but I made many phone calls, left several messages, and managed to speak to ten school principals. That’s almost one quarter of all schools currently advertising.

Those I did get to talk to spoke openly and often at length about the reasons behind their decision to look to JobBridge. But all spoke on the strict condition of anonymity.

Every one of them, without exception, told me that the decision was driven by a shortage of resources in their schools.

One school has a mixed class of junior and senior infants with 36 children in it. Four children in that class have Special Educational Needs, according to the principal, some of whom are awaiting a clinical diagnosis. “We have one lovely SNA”, the principal told me, “but she is split between four other children in three different classes”.

“We’ve an amazing teacher in that class”, the principal said, “but even with the best teacher….”. This is why this school, for the first time, has turned this year to JobBridge.

Another school told me that they had a crisis in the school recently. The details are confidential. The principal told me: “But for our JobBridge intern we would nearly have closed down”. “We needed help”, he told me, “we told the department, but we didn’t get it”. This rural school has 34 children in one mixed class of 5th and 6th class pupils. “I’m telling you”, the principal said, “its crowd control”.

Another school told me of a class of 31 pupils that consisted of three streams, 4th, 5th and 6th all in together.

Many of these schools told me they didn’t want an SNA necessarily, just someone to help out in those large mixed classes.

Quite a few of the schools are small four- or two-teacher ones. These are the schools that have been hit by recent cuts to pupil teacher ratio for small schools.

Again and again schools said they just needed “help for the big numbers”, especially in the junior and senior infant classes. Several harked back to the 1980s when they began teaching and the large class sizes then. “We’re going back there”, they said.

All of the schools were critical of the changed criteria for SNAs. They say children who would have got help before are now being turned down. “It’s so difficult to access resources now”, one said, “you are talking now only about extreme cases, children with serious care needs”.

One school told me that three years ago they had two full-time SNAs and one working half-time. The following year that dropped to two. Then last year it fell again to 1.5 positions. Finally this year, they have just one SNA. During this time the school population has grown by 10%. This principal looked for an additional SNA but was turned down. He says when he told his local Special Educational Needs Organiser (SENO) that he was thinking of JobBridge, the SENO advised him to go ahead. SENOs liaise with schools on behalf of the State to evaluate their resource needs.

“We have three SNAs for five children”, one principal of another rural school told me. The needs of three of those children, she said, were so great “you can’t let them out of your sight”. “I have two other little fellas,” she went on, “and their issue is concentration”. One of them is extremely bright but he will daydream all day. Without an SNA to keep him on task, in a class of 31, he is floundering. The second “ladeen” was constantly disrupting the class, she said.

Of those who had used JobBridge in the past, all said the experience was hugely positive. One JobBridge placement had resulted in part-time work for the intern. Another JobBridge intern had gone on to college to become a teacher. A person who had worked as a caretaker through JobBridge had “blossomed” as a result of the experience, according to the principal. They stressed that they supported their interns and took their role as mentors very seriously.

So is getting SNAs through JobBridge displacing real jobs? No, most of these principals said, but only because they can’t get approval for the number of SNAs they feel their school needs. One principal had a different view. “It takes the pressure off the Government”, she said: “It could prevent me from screaming at the SENO for an extra SNA. Psychologically it could displace real SNA jobs.”

This principal made another point. JobBridge is aimed at helping people take up real jobs by giving them experience in the given area. “I couldn’t give a real job to an SNA intern even if I wanted to”, she said. This is because schools are obliged to give preferment to SNAs who have recently lost their posts over any newcomer. The Department of Education does not have numbers for the amount of people in this category but this principal says there are “a lot”. “You’re training a person for a job, but if a job comes up I can’t give it to her”, she said.

Some of these principals were tempted to speak out publicly on the issues they raised with me, but their Boards of Managements were against it. Two felt that by speaking out they could identify children in their care.

But almost all were initially reluctant to talk to me about JobBridge. Of the principals I left messages for, none of them got back to me. When asked by school secretaries what my call was in relation to, I felt the chill when I said “JobBridge”. “It’s a thorny issue”, one told me.