Thursday, 3 February 2005
Special Educational Needs.
In February 1999, the Government decided to establish the national educational psychological service with delegated authority to develop and provide an educational psychological service to all students who need it in primary and post-primary schools and in other relevant centres supported by my Department. The Government also agreed that NEPS should be established in the first instance on an administrative basis as a dedicated executive agency of my Department and with an initial development period of five years.
NEPS was established accordingly with effect from 1 September 1999. It has not been established on a statutory basis and remains part of my Department. Following the recruitment of additional psychologists, there are now 128 psychologists in NEPS, compared with just 43 in 1999. Taking account of psychologists elsewhere in the educational system, it is estimated that there is now a total of approximately 145 in the sector.
The last Civil Service Commission panel of 69 entry-level psychologists has recently been exhausted and my Department is currently in contact with the Department of Finance with a view to securing sanction for the recruitment of additional psychologists to NEPS before the end of 2005. Further recruitment will depend on the availability of resources and must also take account of Government policy on public sector numbers.
At the end of 2004, NEPS was providing a full psychological service to approximately 60% of schools and 75% of pupils. To provide an assessment service to those schools that do not yet have access to the full NEPS service, my Department also funds NEPS to operate the scheme for commissioning psychological assessments.
Currently, NEPS has 28 administrative staff. As well as staff based in head office, NEPS staff are based in eight regional offices and in 11 local offices, the latter figure including several temporary offices.
The Minister said regarding the weighted system that the rationale is that children will not have to wait for as long as previously. However, I conducted a survey last year that showed that one in four had been waiting for more than nine months to be assessed by NEPS despite, I imagine, the extra resources outside NEPS assessments, or the scheme of commissioning as the Minister terms it. Does the Minister know the current figure or how long the waiting list is? Does she agree that many of the delays were within NEPS or her Department and that it was not the fault of the children, their parents or, in many instances, the schools? The Minister says the delay is necessary for the weighted system, but that was within the control of her Department. Perhaps we should examine that before we consider other systems to resolve the matter.
One difficulty that could be identified is that not all psychologists are willing to work in all areas, and it is becoming difficult to recruit psychologists to work in particular areas throughout the country. They are now working to try to target their recruitment and let people know in advance where they will be working to meet the needs in those areas. That is the reason the scheme has been successful in terms of commissioning psychological assessments outside that. As well as providing the service, the national psychological education service also works closely with the schools to find ways to support the school and the teacher in the classroom. It does tremendous work also with the family. It is important to acknowledge the various tragedies that have affected our schools over the past few years, and even in the past few weeks. NEPS provides a tremendous support service to all children in the school and to schools in dealing with crises. That is added work it does in addition to its own work.
I take the opportunity to congratulate the Minister on the work she is doing in the Department. I had intended asking her about the regional spread, and I welcome the fact that the next round will target areas. Will the Minister confirm that the panel is exhausted, with the 69 personnel now employed? A person who was on the panel had been interested in a position in Inishowen but there was an outstanding issue with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. If the Minister cannot answer that question I can give her the details of the case later.
On cross-Border co-operation for areas along the Border that could have a service provided on a cross-Border basis, is there a facility within NEPS to accommodate the availability of resources outside our own jurisdiction?
My understanding is that the panel has been exhausted. I do not know about the individual case regarding Inishowen but I would be happy to check that for the Deputy, as I will do in respect of the cross-Border facility. The island is too small for us to ignore the services and expertise that might be available one to the other.
Special Ed. 01/05 is a circular on the special education council. Special educational needs organisers, SENOs, appear to have responsibilities for assessment of children's needs. How will they work with NEPS? What will be the interaction in terms of the duties of the two sets of personnel?
NEPS personnel will continue to be responsible for the psychological assessment because that is their professional background. SENOs will work closely with the school in determining whether NEPS or the health board is needed, whether other services and facilities should be brought on board, and examining in particular the allocation of resource hours for the higher incidence people.