Dáil Éireann - Volume 537 - 12 June, 2001

Other Questions. - Psychological Service.

64. Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Education and Science the degree to which he proposes to expand psychological services and special needs teachers to all primary and second level schools throughout the country with a view to meeting the requirements as set out by parents and school authorities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17103/01]

Dr. Woods: The national educational psychological service is being developed as a dedicated agency to provide an educational psychological service to all primary and post-primary schools. The new NEPS agency came into existence on 1 September 1999 with 42 psychologists already employed in the service. The recruitment of additional psychologists involved the organisation of a competition through the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commission. Notwithstanding the time consuming nature of such competitions, there are now 82 psychologists in NEPS and, by the end of this school year, 100 psychologists will be employed in the service. I also intend to proceed with the recruitment of a [1069] further 28 psychologists before the end of this calendar year. This will raise the staffing to 128 and greatly improve the service.

In the meantime, pending the expansion of the national educational psychological service to all schools on a nation-wide basis, measures have been included in the Finance Bill to provide tax relief to parents who find it necessary to engage the services of private educational psychologists.

Ms Shortall: So much for equity.

Dr. Woods: Consideration is also being given to the development of school-based testing measures which will provide a more efficient means of identifying some special needs without the need for recourse to full educational psychological assessments. Special needs teachers are deployed wherever students have been assessed as requiring such support.

The extent of the Government's commitment to addressing the issue of special educational needs was reflected in its decision of October 1998 that all children with special needs in the primary system should have an entitlement to an automatic response to their needs.

Mr. Creed: What about Jamie Sinnott?

Dr. Woods: As a result of this development, the number of resource teacher posts supporting special needs children in the primary system has been increased from 104 to 950. The number of special needs assistant posts increased from 299 to more than 2,000 over the same period. Additional special needs teachers are being deployed on an ongoing basis in response to identified needs and this process will continue.

Children of second level age with special needs are generally catered for in ordinary second level schools with the support of the resource teacher and special needs assistant services. There are 240 resource teachers and 135 special needs assistants at second level at present.

Additional Information.Where more serious disabilities are involved, the children are catered for in a range of special schools and special classes dedicated to particular disabilities. All such facilities operate at reduced pupil-teacher ratios and attract special needs assistant support in line with the recommendations of the special education review committee.

The unprecedented and ongoing development of special education services undertaken by this Government will ensure all children with special needs receive the support they require.

Mr. Durkan: From where did the inspiration for the increased staffing levels come? Are the increases a direct response to representations from parents, teachers and school authorities, the level of which is far greater than the Minister may indicate? Will the Minister outline the precise requirements identified by primary and second level school authorities and to what extent does [1070] he intend to respond positively to these in the shortest possible time?

Dr. Woods: The need to increase the number of psychologists in NEPS to 200 was identified and the Government gave a commitment to achieve this over a five year period. That programme has been accelerated and the level of provision is ahead of target.

Ms Shortall: What provision is the Minister making for schools, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, which are not yet covered by NEPS? Many children in these schools are crying out for psychological assessment and it is not possible to provide them with an education until such time as they are properly assessed. What financial assistance is the Minister providing to school authorities which are currently required to fund raise to pay for assessments?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I will allow two further brief supplementaries before the Minister replies.

Mr. U. Burke: Is the Minister liaising with his colleague, the Minister for Health and Children in regard to the provision of psychological services? No psychological services, other than those provided by the health board, are available in some areas of County Galway.

Mr. Creed: Does the Minister propose to reimburse schools which have already paid out of their own funds for assessments for children whose parents or guardians cannot afford them? Does he have plans for a regional office network to facilitate the roll-out of NEPS to meet educational welfare and other requirements?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Perhaps the Minister would reply to the questions in the order they were asked.

Dr. Woods: On the inspiration for NEPS, I can be as inspired as anyone else but inspiration does not necessarily translate into funding. The Government is coming up with funding. The figures outlined, charting an increase from 42 to 128 psychologists by the end of this year, are unprecedented.

Mr. Durkan: Who measured the need?

Dr. Woods: We now have the capacity to provide a service. Deputy Creed referred to the roll-out of NEPS which is of particular relevance at this time. The service has its own director who will oversee the roll-out of the service.

Mr. Creed: Is it a permanent or acting director?

Dr. Woods: NEPS, which is undergoing a development phase, currently provides educational psychological services to all second level [1071] schools and approximately 1,345 primary schools. It is planned that the NEPs will support all first and second level schools by the end of the 2003-2004 school year. It can be seen that rapid progress is being made.

Mr. U. Burke: That is on paper.

Dr. Woods: This includes disadvantaged schools, which take priority within the roll out. I have asked that priority be given to them.

Ms Shortall: In the meantime, is any financial assistance being given to schools that have to cater—

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Minister without interruption.

Dr. Woods: That is happening right now and I am back to what Deputy Creed asked me as to whether we can roll it out now. We are almost ready. It has been slow and complicated with the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commission but the people are in position and we will be able to roll it out very shortly and show what will happen.

Mr. U. Burke: When will it roll to the west?

Ms Shortall: Will the Minister reimburse schools?