Wednesday, 8 June 2011
St. Columba's national school in Cloonagh, Dring, County Longford is situated just outside the village of Mullinalaghta, in a very rural part of the county. Both Councillor P.J. Reilly and I have been inundated with calls from frustrated families in regard to the proposed threat to the school transport service from 1 September 2011. This service has been provided to pupils since the 1970s when the two schools in the parish were amalgamated. A firm commitment was given at that time that if the people of the area agreed to the amalgamation, the affected families would always have access to public transport to bring their children to the new facility.
Some 40 years later, the former pupils are now parents themselves and are sending their children to school on the bus. The service provides support to 18 families in the area, ten of which are paying for the service, covering a round journey of 22 km. Will the Minister for Education and Skills review this decision, which constitutes an attack on rural Ireland? For too long rural areas have played second fiddle and been seen as an easy target. People in these areas have barely recovered from the proposed closure of two-teacher schools. I am sure the Minister will say that proposal was initiated by the previous Government, and I accept that. However, the threat remains and the Minister has not put it to bed. Many people are fearful for the future of rural two-teacher schools, and this latest proposal represents another serious attack on rural life.
Only three years ago St. Columba's national school benefited under the schools building programme when a new two-teacher building was built and was opened with all necessary auxiliary facilities in place. The old building is now being used as a community and recreational hall. The school is part of a small but thriving rural community which also has a church, two pubs and a shop. As somebody who comes from a rural area and who went to a one-teacher school which has since been upgraded to two-teacher status, I have a great love and affinity for rural Ireland. The Government must do all in its power to preserve services in these areas.
I acknowledge that the Minister is in a straitjacket in terms of financial constraints, but I understand the Exchequer figures are better by some €200 million than what was anticipated at the beginning of the year. For a very small sum this service can be maintained for the 18 families which depend on it. Working parents may be unable to bring their children to school in the absence of a school bus service. I ask the Minister to review the situation as soon as possible before 1 September with a view to alleviating the fears of these families. There is a perception that we are seeing an attack on rural Ireland, including on rural schools. I hope the Minister will allay that fear this evening and will commit to revisiting this decision with a view to retaining the service that is being provided to the 18 families, ten of which are paying for it and are willing to continue to do so into the future.
I take it the Deputy is referring to the changes in the primary school transport scheme announced in budget 2011 by the previous Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government. These changes, which may have an impact on the school transport service for St. Columba's national school, derive from recommendations in the value for money review of the school transport scheme and include changes to the closed school rule, CSR, and to the minimum numbers required to establish or maintain a service.
Regarding the CSR, there is a number of dimensions to the cessation of this rule. The first, which will be implemented from September 2011, involves the uniform application of the distance criterion to all pupils travelling under the primary transport scheme, including those travelling under the CSR. This means that children residing less than 3.2 km from their school of amalgamation will be deemed ineligible for school transport. Families affected will be notified by Bus Éireann of changes to their transport eligibility with effect from the 2011-2012 school year. These families may apply for concessionary transport on payment of a charge of €200 in circumstances where there are spare seats available.
The second element of the change is scheduled to take effect in September 2012 and will apply only in the case of pupils commencing their primary education from that date. This change will restrict school transport eligibility for new pupils to those who meet the distance eligibility criterion and are travelling to their nearest school.
Available statistics, based on sampling undertaken as part of the value for money review, indicate that the impact of this element of the change will be limited, as the majority of pupils categorised under the closed school rule are in fact attending their nearest school. Therefore, the majority of families will not be affected by the change. That said, I have requested Bus Éireann to conduct a detailed analysis of the impact for individual schools and the rural communities they serve. Like the Deputy, I attended a small rural school and am very much aware of the requirements of these schools and the challenge they face to survive.
Bus Éireann's analysis will be based on the most up-to-date information available on current usage patterns and this information is expected to be available this summer. The likely effects of this change will then be carefully examined well in advance of the 2012 implementation date.
To put this issue in context for the 2009-2010 school year, transport services under the CSR operated to more than 800 primary schools with almost 26,000 children deemed eligible for school transport under this rule, representing 54.4% of mainstream tickets issued. The transport of such a significant number of children, some of whom would not qualify for the service on the basis of the distance criterion alone, involves a cost.
In regard to the minimum numbers required to establish or maintain a service, the changes include the requirement that from the 2011-12 school year, a minimum of ten eligible pupils residing in a distinct locality will be required to retain or establish a school transport service. This brings the minimum numbers required to establish services back to 2002 levels. As is currently the position, families of eligible pupils for whom there is no suitable school transport service available may apply for the remote area grant towards the cost of making private transport arrangements. Bus Éireann is currently undertaking a detailed examination of all such services to establish the routes in question. Families affected will be notified of changes.