Wednesday, 8 June 2011
Question 16: To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if he will reconsider implementing proposals that will increase the minimum number of students required to justify a bus service from seven to ten and which will result in a cut to many rural routes. [14455/11]
Question 20: To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if he will reconsider implementing the proposed changes to primary school transport as outlined in Budget 2011 in view of the fact that this will result in a €50 charge from September which will further impoverish families who are currently struggling to meet the costs of educating their children. [14452/11]
Question 30: To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if he will agree not to cut concessionary travel for children travelling under the two mile limit particularly when there is no additional cost involved on buses already travelling on a particular route to a school. [14457/11]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 16, 20 and 30 together.
Changes to aspects of the school transport service were announced in the 2011 budget by the previous Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government and derive from recommendations in the 2010 Value for Money Review of the scheme. The wider context is that the budget for school transport increased from some €50 million to nearly €180 million between 1997 and this year. This massive increase, while heavily influenced by factors such as safety and the transport provision for children with special educational needs, is significantly greater than the inflation rate or the rate of increase in the overall education budget during the same period.
There is a requirement under the four year recovery plan to deliver savings of €17 million on school transport and these measures are a necessary part of achieving it. Given the circumstances of the country, the stark reality is that there is simply no scope for reversing these measures. With regard to the three specific aspects of the changes raised by the Deputy, I would like to make the following points. The Value For Money review identified that in 2008 the unit cost per primary pupil for the provision of school transport was more than €1,000 per annum. The charge of €50, representing as it does some 5% recoupment of this cost, must be seen in context. It is also important to stress that eligible pupils holding medical cards will be exempt from paying the charge and that the charge is capped at a maximum of €110 per family with eligible primary pupils only.
The increase from seven to ten in the number of eligible pupils residing in a distinct locality and who are required to establish or retain a school transport service broadly represents a reversal back to 2002 levels. Again, it is important to stress that families of eligible pupils for whom there is no school transport service available may apply for a grant towards the cost of making private transport arrangements.
I assume the Deputy's final question relates to the decision to apply the distance eligibility requirement to all pupils travelling under the primary transport scheme, including those pupils who have previously availed of free transport under the closed-central schools rule. This means that only primary pupils who reside 3.2 km or more from the nearest school will be eligible for transport. In a time of such serious economic difficulties, I am sure the Deputy will accept it is not unreasonable to restrict transport eligibility to those living more than two miles from their school. There is no change in the position whereby ineligible pupils may apply for concessionary transport in accordance with the terms of that scheme.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I missed his point on how much the saving will amount to, so he might repeat that. There is very little public transport in many rural communities and we need to know how many students this measure will affect. When the planners were introducing this change, did they know the effect it would have? Does the Minister agree that these cuts, if implemented, will radically alter the social fabric of many communities in rural Ireland? Again, it comes back to a point I made in regard to a recent question, namely, for those outside the system it is seen as another stealth tax on families in rural Ireland. How much will we actually save and what effect will it have in regard to the social fabric, schools and families in these areas?
The saving we are required to make, and have no option but to make under the four-year recovery agreement, is €17 million. In the context of spending €180 million per annum, that is quite a small saving. Given the actual per capita cost to the State of supplying the service is €1,020 per annum, a €50 charge is not unreasonable, particularly when one takes into consideration that all families who are holders of medical cards are exempt from the charge.
I am primarily concerned about the disproportionate impact these proposals will have on smaller schools in rural areas. While I accept we have to live within the budget that has been prescribed for the school transport service, I believe that where there is a will, there is a way. We can minimise the harshest impact of these proposals if we can have a constructive approach to alternative proposals. I would like the Minister to consider a phased implementation of the numbers required, contingent on the level of enrolment or perhaps on the number of teachers in smaller schools. It is unfair to ask a two-teacher school with perhaps 30 or 40 pupils to be obliged to have ten pupils on a school transport route when it previously only had to have seven. We could perhaps have a phased approach or allow those which already have a service for seven pupils to retain it at that level while moving to a level of ten pupils for new services. We can live within the budget.
The closed school rule gave children an entitlement to transport due to the arrangements entered into when the previous school closed. Where only one pupil had an automatic entitlement to transport, does that closed school rule take precedence over the requirement to have ten pupils? As I understand it, the closed school rule will only come into force in September 2012.
I attended a small, two-teacher rural school for eight years and that school continues to function perfectly well to this day without any school transport. All of the children attending that school either walk, cycle or are driven to and from school by their parents or grandparents or other family members.
The value for money report carried out by the previous Government and the changes suggested in it were part of a budgetary decision taken in October 2010. The value for money report, in assessing the likely impact of these changes on school-going children, carried out, I would argue, a sketchy assessment of the likely implications of these changes. I have asked Bus Éireann to carry out a full and forensic analysis now of the impact of these changes, and the result of that analysis will be available to me towards the end of this month. I intend to use that information to assess the likely negative effects. If it proves that they will be prohibitive and will actually discourage children from attending small rural schools, I undertake to reconsider the review. However, I must at all times do so in the context of having to make the €17 million saving. There can be no flexibility whatsoever in that matter.