Almost half of the Special Needs Assistant posts created in the last budget have yet to be filled, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

Of the 1,165 posts, 623 have been filled, with the remaining 542 expected to be "allocated by the end of the year", Minister of State at the Department of Education Josepha Madigan said.

The minister said that most of the remaining posts will be filled by the "exceptional review process", which allows schools to argue that they have not been given a sufficient allocation of SNAs.

The Joint Committee on Education is examining whether SNAs should be given recognised qualifications.

Currently, three grade Ds in the Junior Certificate, or the equivalent, are needed to become an SNA.

National Secretary of Fórsa Andy Pike noted that these minimum requirements have not been reviewed since 1979.

And he said that around half of schools do not treat SNAs with appropriate respect, adding that this was an "optimistic" assessment.

Minister Madigan revealed that the department is currently reviewing a report into a new SNA programme at UCD, along with an evaluation of it by students.

"It is my personal preference that there would be accreditation for SNA's", Ms Madigan said, but noted that "there is a process there".

Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne urged that the "sooner that is resolved" the better.

The minister replied that she wants to see it dealt with "as expeditiously as possible", later adding that it would be done "hopefully this year".

Noting that the programme in UCD is the first of its kind, she suggested that it could be run at other institutions around the country.

Linda O'Sullivan is an SNA and was one of the 500 people who enrolled in the first training programme at UCD.

"We're coming towards the end of June and there's no end in sight", she said.

"We are going to drive people out of the profession", she warned.

Ms O'Sullivan insisted that the issue of accreditation must be resolved before the course resumes in the autumn.

Labour TD Aodhán Ó Riordáin said that many SNAs face a "lack of respect" on a daily basis, and are asked to perform "pretty menial tasks".

Mr Pike said that these include cleaning, covering books, photocopying, and also being present in June when students are not present.

He said that this is tied to the basic requirement needed to become a SNA, adding that accreditation should be introduced to address this.

Minister Madigan acknowledged that SNAs play an "integral" and "important" role, and that the service "could not survive" without them.

"Over the years they may have been undervalued, and I want to change that", she said and urged teachers to treat them "with respect".

There will be 19,169 SNAs by the end of the year, with 11,174 of them in mainstream settings, the minister said.

And she noted that, in 2020, an extra 1,000 SNAs were allocated for, with a further 1,000 in 2021.

Fine Gael Senator Aisling Dolan said that qualifications are a way to acknowledge work that sometimes goes "unseen".

While Fianna Fáil TD Jim O'Callaghan warned that the school that undervalues its SNAs also undervalues children with special needs.