Tuesday, 18 October 2005
I wish to raise the denial of school transport for 26 pupils from the Dunbeacon area of west Cork to Schull community college. This year marks the re-establishment of an historic injustice perpetrated by the Government against the parents from the Dunbeacon-Goleen area in west Cork and their children who attend Schull community college. No school transport is being provided this year for the 26 pupils who live four or five miles from and attend that school. An excuse has been given that the arrangement for school transport made last year by the school with the support of the County Cork Vocational Education Committee was exceptional pending a longer-term solution. The only solution offered by the Government this year is to leave them to their own devices and return them to school transport limbo.
Another excuse that will be offered by the Minister of State is that the pupils in question reside within the Bantry catchment area. This is not correct and I will explain why. I raised this issue in the Dáil some years ago with the former Minister for Education and Science, under Question No. 799 of 6 November 2001. In the reply I discovered that the catchment boundaries were established in the late 1960s in the context of the free education scheme. There were no specific regulations accompanying the determination of catchment areas. Effectively, parish boundaries determined them and revision would take place as the need arose. At that time the catchment boundary extended along the Mizen peninsula between Bantry and Skibbereen. Schull community college did not exist at that time. It was not built until 20 years later and the new catchment boundary between Schull and Bantry was never established.
It was parents such as those from the Dunbeacon area who campaigned for the school in Schull and naturally sent their children there. Why would they not? It is only four or five miles away. They lived in the same parish, which the Minister of State defines as a relevant consideration. They had been to a primary school in the same parish and had been going there since the local primary school in Dunbeacon had closed. A new catchment area boundary was established between Skibbereen and Schull, including provision of a common catchment area east of Ballydehob, but no catchment boundary was agreed or established between Bantry and Schull. No school transport was provided until the temporary arrangement last year.
The Minister of State will say that the pupils from the Dunbeacon area reside in the Bantry catchment area and are fully eligible for transport to that post-primary centre only. I challenge that assertion; it is not correct. Apart from the ludicrous fact that the distance involved varies from ten to 15 miles, no school bus service is, has been or ever will be provided to Bantry from that area. County Cork VEC came up with a proposal last year and this year it is blocked because of stupid and ridiculous Civil Service gobbledygook that states it encroaches into the Bantry area. No boundary was ever agreed. There were no specific regulations. There should have been a revision on account of the new school but it never took place.
All that is needed now is the political will to get rid of this anachronism. If the Government continues to fail the parents and the pupils from the Dunbeacon area, a number of consequences will follow. They will be left in limbo as far as school transport goes. No transport will be provided to Bantry and transport will be refused to a school that they, their sisters and brothers and some of their parents went to since Schull community college was established. The cost is upwards of €1,000 per child. That is the penalty being placed on these parents. A private bus had been arranged by the parents in the past, but it clearly fell by the wayside with the temporary arrangement last year. These people are now left in limbo, with many informal arrangements for getting to school. Some parents drive in and out twice a day. Another issue that concerns me are informal arrangements where pupils themselves are driving to school and bringing colleagues.
Does the Minister of State know this area? Travelling in Mount Gabriel involves going over mountainous roads in rural Ireland. Does the Minister of State realise what could arise if an accident occurred involving those inexperienced drivers? If that happens, this Government will bear the responsibility, as it will be the consequence of what the Government is forcing these people to do. There is also the consequences of the disadvantage that these pupils are at with regard to education and points attainment in the competitive world of the Leaving Certificate.
Let us have an end to the Dunbeacon educational anachronism. It can be done and a boundary or common catchment area, or both, should be created. We should move on this issue now and if a political will is there it can be done. If such a will is not there, the Government will bear complete responsibility for the consequences.
I thank Deputy Jim O'Keeffe for raising the matter on the Adjournment as it gives me the opportunity to outline to the House my position regarding school transport in respect of pupils from the Dunbeacon area travelling to Schull community college in County Cork.
By way of general comment, I should explain that one of the main objects of the school transport scheme is to provide a basic level of service for children who live long distances from schools and who might otherwise experience difficulty in attending regularly. There are approximately 135,000 primary and post-primary pupils using the school transport scheme on a regular basis. At post-primary level the country is divided into catchment areas, with each catchment area having a post-primary centre. A pupil is eligible for transport if he or she resides 4.8 kilometres, three miles, or more from the post-primary centre in the catchment area in which he or she lives. A school transport service will usually be established if there are at least seven pupils residing in a distinct locality. If it is not economically viable to establish a service, the parent of an eligible pupil may be paid a remote area grant to assist with the cost of making private transport arrangements. The maximum grant payable is €5.10 per day based on distance.
School transport services are operated by Bus Éireann on behalf of my Department.
At second level, the chief executive officers of the vocational education committees assist Bus Éireann by acting as transport liaison officers. Post-primary pupils who are eligible for school transport to the post-primary centre in their own catchment area may sometimes elect to attend a post-primary centre in a different catchment area to the one in which they reside. In such circumstances, these pupils may apply for school transport to the post-primary centre they have chosen to attend. However, such pupils will only be offered transport if there are spare seats available on the relevant bus after all eligible pupils have been accommodated.
These pupils are fully eligible for transport to the Bantry post-primary centre. I must point out, however, that under the school transport scheme these pupils are not eligible for transport to Schull community college.
They may apply, in the normal way, for catchment boundary transport to that college. It may be of interest to the Deputy that I understand that approaches have been made by the transport liaison officer from Cork VEC to initiate discussion on a common catchment area between Bantry and Schull schools. These approaches have been rejected at local level.