Tuesday, 29 March 2011
I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for facilitating an Adjournment debate on this matter.
Changes to the school transport system will always be a contentious issue. Any interference with it can have a ripple effect, affecting not just pupils but the schools concerned. Rural schools tend to be affected more as well.
The value for money review of the school transport system provided some interesting facts. In 2009, 125,000 pupils were transported every day by the schools transport system compared to 157,000 in 1997. In 2009, however, the service cost €196 million, an increase of 300% on the 1997 cost. While I agree the State must carry out value for money reviews on such services, it is also important it consults those affected by any proposed changes. For example, the average annual cost of transporting a primary school pupil comes to €1,020 and €958 for a post-primary student. The associated extras, such as escorts and a longer service time into July, for transporting children with special educational needs means the actual cost for those pupils can be in excess of €9,000. Another interesting fact that emerged in the review is that it is 20% cheaper to have the service operated by the private sector rather than Bus Éireann.
I am, however, concerned the school transport review group had no representatives from school patrons, teacher or parent organisations, the very people who will be directly affected by any changes. It is also regrettable that on 8 March 2011, the day before the 31st Dáil met, the Department of Education and Skills published the VFM report, which had been in its possession for several months, on its website and which outlined charges to be introduced from next September.
I am not opposed to charges per se, that is not why I am raising this matter. I am particularly concerned about changes proposed to central or closed school rules. Schools that closed in the past, perhaps 20 or 30 years ago, were merged into a central school. As a consequence, the children in the closed school catchment area had an entitlement to free school transport to the central school for many years. Now, at the stroke of a pen, that agreement entered into by the Department and the patrons of the school has been torn up without consultation with parents, patrons or teachers. The consequence of this is that each child will be considered in terms of the nearest school and whether the child meets the new criteria for transport.
Many who have free transport to existing schools will find they no longer have that entitlement but may have an entitlement to transport to another school. Over the intervening years, education infrastructure has been invested in all schools but more so in the central school. We may now witness a movement away from the central school to smaller, peripheral schools where there is not adequate classroom provision, etc. In being pennywise - that is questionable - the Department may be pound foolish because it will incur additional expenditure to accommodate students in other schools, classrooms and prefabs. That has not been considered.
The circular from Bus Éireann-----
This is a complex issue and I appreciate the attendance of the Minister of State. I will conclude on this point. The circular indicates that the child already enrolled in the school will continue to have those transport arrangements by virtue of the fact that the child has commenced school, whereas the brother or sister starting next year will not have the entitlement. Instead, he or she may have an entitlement to transport to another school. Families will be split and sent in different directions. This will make for a long, hot summer in rural Ireland. School transport is an emotive issue and I ask the Minister to withdraw the circular the Department issued to schools through Bus Éireann and to sit down in consultation with parents, teachers and interest groups.
I am replying to this matter on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills. The reply is substantial. This is a complicated and emotive issue. I will convey the Deputy's pleadings to the Minister. If I do not complete my contribution within five minutes, we may take it that it will be read into the Official Report.
I thank Deputy Creed for giving me the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon. Before I address the issue of the changes to the primary school transport scheme, I would like to give Members of the House an outline of the extent of the school transport service. The Deputy has attempted to do this and it is quite complicated. School transport is a very significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department and covering over 82 million km annually. Some 123,000 children, including more than 8,000 children with special needs, are transported in approximately 4,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country. Children eligible for transport may use scheduled public transport services including the DART and LUAS although I assume that is rare in Deputy Creed's constituency.
A number of changes to the school transport scheme were announced in Budget 2011 by the former Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan and the former Minister for Education and Skills, Mary Coughlan. The changes regarding the primary school transport scheme derive from recommendations in the recently published value for money report of the scheme and relate to the introduction of charges, changes to the closed school rule, changes to the minimum numbers required to establish or maintain a service and new arrangements to be put in place with Bus Éireann on a phased basis for the operation of the scheme. I will give a brief outline of the changes.
With effect from the 2011-12 school year a transport fee of €50 per annum will be introduced for eligible primary school pupils, with a maximum family charge for eligible primary pupils only, of €110. Eligible children who hold a valid medical card are exempt from paying the charge. Approximately 26,000 pupils, or an estimated 58% of eligible pupils, will be liable to pay the charge. Evidence suggests school transport charges compare very favourably with the charges being levied by the private sector. While the charges vary, in the private sector some parents are paying between €20 and €25 per child per week which equates to about €730 and €915 per child per school year at primary level. The Department's charge for the 2011-12 school year is €50 per eligible primary child per annum with a family maximum of €110 for eligible primary children per annum.
As a consequence of the introduction of charges, parents will now have to apply directly to Bus Éireann, which operates the school transport scheme on behalf of my Department, for school transport for their children. This charge is being introduced to ensure that school transport provided for eligible primary pupils is fully utilised in a cost effective manner. The closed school rule for school transport eligibility purposes was introduced in the 1960's in circumstances where a primary school was closed and amalgamated with another. Under this closed school rule, where a primary school is closed and amalgamated with another, pupils residing in the closed school area are eligible for transport to the school of amalgamation even though they may reside less than 3.2 km from the school.
There is also what is called a central school rule resulting from the amalgamation of a greater number of schools. In these instances transport is provided for children residing not less than 1 mile or 1.6 km from the new central school. No time limit has been applied to the closed school and central school rules. In some cases the primary schools in question were closed up to 40 years ago and amalgamated with another school. In some instances, a newer school has subsequently been built in the general area of the original closed school. Under the current primary school transport scheme, however, the transport provided will be to the amalgamated school only, even in circumstances where there is actually a newer school closer to the pupil's home. A pupil in these circumstances is not eligible for free transport to the newer school.
I accept that it is a complicated issue. I will convey the Deputy's concerns and I appreciate that Deputy Creed brought this to the Minister's notice. I hope we can resolve this.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
In the 2009-10 school year, transport services under the closed school rule operated to more than 800 primary schools with almost 26,000 children, 54.4% of mainstream tickets issued, deemed eligible for school transport under this rule. In the majority of cases where such transport has been provided pupils in fact attend their nearest primary school. While the application of the CSR is referred to in these cases, it does not mean that they are not travelling to their nearest school.
The transport of such a significant number of children, some of whom would not qualify for transport on the basis of the distance criterion alone, involves a cost. The specific changes announced in relation to the closed school rule are as follows. From the commencement of the 2011-12 school year, the distance criteria will be applied to all pupils attending primary schools and the exemption under the closed school rule will cease. This means that children who reside less than 3.2 km, or two miles, from the school of attendance and who are availing of free transport to that school under the closed school rule will lose their transport eligibility; from the 2012-13 school year, eligibility based on the closed school rule, CSR, and the central school rule will cease for all new children entering primary schools. Existing primary pupils availing of transport under the CSR will retain transport eligibility for the duration of their schooling, provided the requisite distance is met.
The practical consequence of these changes is the principle that using the distance criteria as the key eligibility criterion, having regard to language and ethos, will be applied equitably nationally; transitional arrangements for a period of seven years will be required to cater for the eligible primary cohort attending the amalgamated school to allow them complete their schooling at the school; in the case of all future primary school amalgamations eligibility will be based on the distance criteria applying at that time and attendance at the nearest school; and from 2012-13, pupils residing in a closed school area, for whom the amalgamated school is not their nearest but who enrol in their nearest school, will be eligible for school transport provided the requisite distance of 3.2 km is met.
Bus Éireann is undertaking a detailed assessment of pupils attending each school concerned. Parents affected will be notified by Bus Éireann of changes to their transport eligibility with effect from the 2011-12 school year. In regard to the minimum numbers required to establish or maintain a service, the changes mean that services under the minimum numbers, either single services or which are part of double tripping arrangements, will be discontinued. A pick-up density of pupils in a distinct locality on a particular route - increasing from the current minimum of seven to ten eligible children - will be required to establish or retain services.
All services transporting less than the minimum number of eligible children, either single services or which are part of double tripping arrangements, will be discontinued with effect from the 2011-12 school year. This brings the minimum numbers required to establish services back to 2002 levels. For the past two school years, under the terms of the school transport scheme, single run services transporting less than the minimum numbers have been discontinued. Bus Éireann will undertake a detailed examination of all such services to establish the routes in question. Parents and guardians of pupils affected will be notified of changes.
It should be emphasised that eligible pupils for whom a service is being withdrawn, will be eligible to apply for the remote area grant. This is paid directly by the Department on submission of a certificate of school attendance. The amount payable is based on distance up to a maximum of 9.7 km or a maximum grant of €5.10 per day per family which equates with €933 per school year based on full attendance.
New arrangements will be put in place with Bus Éireann on a phased basis for the operation of the scheme. These will include arrangements for an increasing proportion of routes to be provided by private operators. From the 2012-13 school year, Bus Éireann will have full responsibility for the operation of the school transport system including responsibility for processing all applications for school transport or grants. Synergies between school transport, rural transport and Health Service Executive services will be further developed.
Finally, I wish to advise that all families served by school transport and indeed all schools served with school transport received an explanatory advance notice from Bus Éireann outlining all the relevant changes to the primary school transport scheme in particular for the school year 2011-12 and also 2012-13 school year. The communication also included an application form and contact details where families or schools could have any aspect of the changes clarified. The main purpose of this advance notice was to explain the changes coming on stream and to give parents and schools advance notice in this regard. I again thank the Deputy for raising this matter.