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The service is run by the Department of Education. Alamy Stock Photo

School psychology service 'unaccountable' and on verge of 'collapse', warns principal

The National Educational Psychology Services (NEPS) is down about 20% of required staff at present.

THE STATE’S PSYCHOLOGY service for schools has been accused of being on the verge of “collapse”.

The service’s refusal to have waiting lists means that schools are being told they are only to put forward their “most critical” children – often meaning large swathes of a student body are missed by the service.

It means the true need for the service is unknown and also “unaccountable” according to one school principal.

The National Educational Psychology Services (NEPS) works with schools year-round and is also tasked in the aftermath of tragedies involving children to help their classmates. It is run by the Department of Education.

Sources with experience of the service told The Journal of staff shortages, lengthy delays for children who schools feel should receive treatment and how there is little to no data on how many children actually require assessment or intervention.

The most recent figures show that there are a large number of vacancies at NEPS across the country.

The Journal heard accounts of how children and adolescents struggle to be seen, as the current system is said to severely curtail the number of students who can be sent to the service.

Many schools are left feeling they can send barely a handful of young people at best to a psychologist – with a dozen or more in each school not getting the treatment they need.

Carlow principal 

Principal Simon Lewis, who oversees 430 students at an Educate Together school in Carlow, sounded the alarm about the state of the service and its future.

He said services for children with additional needs and NEPS have “effectively collapsed” in recent years.

Lewis said his own school has benefitted more than others from the service, due to its status as a disadvantaged school and its designation allowing it to have an autism unit.

But he said that conversations with other principals in education had shown increased dismay at the service.

“Children are just not able to access any service anymore because they’re just not available – that’s from speech and language therapy to psychological assessment. And if you’re looking for a private assessment, you could be six months waiting in this part of the country,” Lewis said.

Waiting list

He added that as the service does not operate a waiting list system, schools are told to prioritise their “most critical” students for NEPS.

According to the Department of Education, a critical incident is any incident or sequence of events which overwhelms the normal coping mechanisms of the school.

Explaining its reasoning for the model, it told The Journal that “best practice” indicates that students need to be with people they know and trust.

However, Lewis said this has the effect of meaning that “a great majority of schools” only send forward two of their students to be treated – even though many more might need some form of assessment.

“You’re picking out the children who can’t do without some kind of intervention because everything else has collapsed,” he said.

And you just know that if the child had been seen when they should have been in the first place, they wouldn’t be in crisis.

He said that NEPS has remained “somewhat functioning” as other parts of adolescent health services have buckled, but warned that the NEPS has been “starting to sink” in recent years.

Lewis added that the service usually works well when it’s tasked in the immediate aftermath of tragedies affecting a school, such as a classmate’s sudden passing.

The Department of Education has sought to bolster staff complements by recruitment campaigns.

But according to figures provided in the Oireachtas last September about the service, it’s down about 20% of its staff. This means there are staff vacancies ranging from between seven and 12 in different parts of the country.

Lewis said NEPS had fallen far compared to his early experiences of the service from when he became a principal in 2008.

“If I needed a child to be assessed or to get a psychological report done, really all I had to do was phone the NEPS psychologist. There was nothing more to it. If I needed an SNA or special needs psychologist, they would come and observe [the students for an assessment].

“People wouldn’t believe you now if you told them that’s what it used to take – but that was only 15 years ago. Now you have to prove that you’ve exhausted all options. The child has to be in crisis before someone will see them.”

Dublin TD Paul Murphy told The Journal of problems faced by families in his local area around Tallaght.

“Despite all the rhetoric about early intervention, the reality is the opposite is taking place,” the People Before Profit TD said.

“NEPS is completely under resourced which means schools don’t haven’t the support they need, which means children aren’t getting the support that they desperately need.”

Experiences elsewhere

Lewis said that the service is still suffering from austerity-era cuts by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, which were “cemented” by later governments by tying the funding to certain conditions.

Lewis also recalled the experiences of colleagues in Finland and Spain which he has visited in recent years for work, noting the disparity between there and Ireland.

“In Finland, the school was really unhappy about their own psychological service.

“They had 205 children in the school and as a result they were only getting access to a psychologist two days a week – I laughed because many schools feel blessed when they get two days a year. That’s the reality here.”

In response to queries, the Department of Education said that NEPS “does not maintain waiting lists” but has adopted a “consultative” model.

It said this was “in common with many other psychological services and best international practice”, and is designed to allow schools and their teachers to “intervene effectively” with children and young people whose needs range from mild to severe.

“If the school continues to have concerns that a student is not making reasonable progress, following evidence-informed support and intervention, the school may request the involvement of the NEPS psychologist,” the department said.