I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I apologise for the unavoidable absence of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Woods, who is involved in business in the other House.
I am grateful to the Senator for raising this matter. It affords me the opportunity to outline to this House the progress that has been made to date with the establishment and development of the national educational psychological service and to clarify the situation regarding the psychological service to St. Mary's junior national school, Rowlagh, Clondalkin.
There was a clear commitment in the programme for Government, An Action Programme for the Millennium, to developing psychological services for children and young people. A planning group established to review provision in this area reported in mid-September 1998. The central recommendation in the report was the establishment of a NEPS agency under the aegis of the Department of Education and Science with a dedicated role in the development and provision of an educational psychological service and with a new organisational structure.
Following a Government decision that approved the findings of the planning group, the NEPS agency came into being on 1 September 1999. On that date 43 Department psychologists, one of whom became acting director, began working in NEPS. The funding for the service is provided through the Vote of the Office of the Minister for Education and Science.
The NEPS agency has been established initially on an administrative basis as a dedicated executive agency of the Department of Education and Science. It is envisaged that, sometime within the five year development period, a decision will be taken on the establishment of NEPS on a statutory basis under the powers conferred on the Minister for Education and Science by the Education Act, 1998.
NEPS has delegated authority to develop and provide an educational psychological service to all students who need it in primary and post-primary schools and in certain other centres support by the Department. The target staffing level to be achieved by the end of 2004 is 200 psychologists. There is also provision for administrative and support staff. NEPS staff will be located throughout the country in ten regions corresponding to health board regions. A regional director will lead the NEPS team in each region.
At present, NEPS provides a psychological service to all schools, including all primary schools designated as disadvantaged in the cities of Dublin, Cork and Limerick. Eventually, when NEPS is at full strength, its psychologists will be able to provide a full educational psychological service to all primary and post-primary schools. However, it will not be possible to expand this service to all schools at once. It is of equal importance that the development of the new agency will be made in an equitable and orderly manner and, at the same time, that school children should not be left without essential assessment services.
The development of NEPS is overseen by a national policy advisory board and by a management committee. A draft detailed five year expansion plan, including proposals, region by region, for the allocation of additional psychologists and for the location of NEPS offices, was recently approved by the policy board and the Minister. One of the first issues raised by the national policy advisory board was the urgent need for some children to have psychological assessments carried out before NEPS reaches full capacity. On the advice of the board, NEPS is carrying out a pilot project aimed at developing a strategy for responding to requests for urgent psychological assessments. This project will be completed early in the new year, and it is hoped that its findings will help NEPS to meet urgent demands in an appropriate way.
The management committee of NEPS consists of representatives of the Departments of Education and Science and Health and Children and meets at approximately monthly intervals. The committee has established a working group, consisting of representatives of NEPS and the health boards. The working group is to examine procedures for making and responding to referrals and will make every effort to arrive at a joint strategy to ensure that schools in every area will have some access to psychological assessment services.
In relation to St. Mary's national school, Rowlagh, I am happy to clarify that the following is the position. This school was one of those selected in 1990 to participate in the Department's pilot project for a psychological service to primary schools. This service was provided to the school between 1990 and 1998, when it had, unfortunately, to be reduced due to the fact that the psychologist assigned to the school took a career break. It was not possible to provide a substitute psychologist until the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commission concluded the recruitment competition for NEPS. This process has taken longer than anticipated.
However, the Civil Service Commission has now selected a panel of additional psychologists for appointment to the agency. Some 26 additional psychologists have already started work with NEPS. It is hoped that by early 2001 nearly 100 psychologists will be in posts. This is half the eventual target of 200 psychologists and should lead to a marked improvement in the level of service being offered by NEPS.
It is essential that the expansion of NEPS should proceed in a phased and orderly way to allow time for newly appointed psychologists to have an adequate induction period before being assigned to their areas. As soon as the 26 psychologists that have taken up posts since the beginning of September have completed their induction training, the first priority will be to fill vacancies caused by resignations and career breaks, including the vacancy in the post servicing St. Mary's school, Rowlagh.
In fact, I understand from the NEPS authorities that a replacement psychologist has now been assigned to the school. I also understand that NEPS has recently had discussions with the school principal and clarified to him that the new psychologist will be in a position to provide a service to the school in the very near future.