Thursday, 23 September 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
I thank the Deputy for his question. The school transport scheme is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. In the 2020-21 school year, more than 114,100 children, including over 14,700 children with special educational needs, were transported on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country at a cost of over €224.7 million in 2020.
All children who are eligible for school transport and who completed the application and payment process on time for the 2021-22 school year will be accommodated on school transport services where such services are in operation. This year I have extended measures to all post-primary pupils who are otherwise eligible for school transport but are attending their second nearest school. Prior to this it was their nearest school but this year I have extended it to ensure that the second nearest school is also part of the framework. All those who have applied and paid on time will be accommodated on school transport services. This arrangement is in place for the current school year pending completion of the full review of the school transport scheme.
Children who are not eligible for school transport may apply for transport on a concessionary basis and are offered seats where capacity exists after all eligible children have been catered for. Late applications or families who pay late or both are not guaranteed a seat and will only be allocated a seat if capacity is available once seats have been allocated to those who have applied and paid on time for services for the 2021-22 school year.
Planning for school transport for the 2021-22 school year has proceeded on the basis that the public health measures in place as schools closed at the end of the last school year would remain as term began in this new school year. This includes the recommendations from public health that post-primary services would operate at 50% capacity and that masks would be worn. However, as the vaccination programme for children on post-primary services is rolled out and as the lifting of restrictions on public transport services proceeds, the capacity limit of 50% on post-primary school transport services will be subject to ongoing review and the Department will be considering the position in this regard over the coming weeks.
Bus Éireann has confirmed that to date, 104,324 pupils, including 54,728 post-primary eligible pupils and 14,735 post-primary concessionary pupils have been issued tickets for the school transport scheme. This number is changing as tickets continue to be allocated to pupils. In the region of 98% of all valid and paid-on-time applicants have been issued with a ticket.
I thank the Minister for that response.
Last year, the biggest issue that my own office dealt with was the issue of school transport. I am aware of parents where one of them had to give up their work because they went through the whole academic year with their child being unable to secure school transport which they were eligible. There are often difficulties arising from the deadlines in place. We know that deadlines are in place to make the management of the system a little more controllable but there are often valid reasons people cannot meet a deadline including, in some instances that I am aware of, where parents simply do not have the money at a particular point in time to pay for that school transport.
There were particular issues with the information technology, IT, system employed by Bus Éireann with regard to medical card holders. I would appreciate if the Minister could outline the specific efforts that have been made to ensure that the student who fall into those two categories are catered for on their local school bus.
I thank the Deputy. I appreciate the issues being brought forward to constituency offices. I am a rural Deputy myself and I understand that and the importance of the school transport system. We have made significant progress in the past year in addressing many of the issues that were problematic last year. This has been helped in no small measure by the review that is in place and as a consequence of the decision I made to ensure that the second nearest school would also be part of the terms of agreement for access to school transport.
The figures and the statistics speak for themselves, in that 98% of all valid and paid-on-time applicants have been issued with a ticket. That is a phenomenal figure to be able to discuss with the House here today.
On specific cases that the Deputy might raise, there is always a mechanism where, if there is an exception for whatever reason, whether due to family circumstances not allowing payment on time or if something has happened, this can be reviewed.
I thank the Minister again. There are two particular issues I will mention. The Minister referred to 98% of valid and paid-on-time students having secured their place on their school bus. That means that 2% have not. In percentage terms this may be a small number but it is a substantial number in real terms and the impact is very real for those families. I urge the Minister that she might ensure that this figure reach 100% as quickly as possible.
The second point I will raise is where the Minister has mentioned the current 50% capacity which our school buses are operating on and her ambition to move that to 100%. Can I ask the Minister to ensure that when that happens, that the additional capacity that this will allow for is actually used to ensure that more students receive concessionary bus tickets and that those for whom other anomalies have emerged are catered for, rather than simply dividing in half the number of buses available? We should use the opportunity that this will present to ensure that more students can avail of their local school bus.
Gabhaim buíochas, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The Minister has confirmed that she will review the 50% capacity rule for buses for post-primary schools in line with the 100% capacity that obviously is the case for public transport. Since the roll-out of the vaccinations for younger people, particularly those who are going to post-primary schools, has the Minister sought advice on the capacity rules to increase it from 50% given that roll-out? As the Minister will be aware, in rural areas where there is no alternative to the car, this obviously is leaving parents in very difficult positions, particularly those who are working. It is not very environmentally friendly either to have several cars on the road when children could actually be on their school bus. We very much need to look at that 50% capacity rule and getting it to 100% and doing that as quickly as possible, in line with public health advice.
I support what Deputies Carthy and Kerrane have said. It is very clear and the inconsistencies in my constituency are very frustrating for people. Most students who travel to school will do so on public transport where if they get a bus, they will travel on 100% capacity. However, for the minority of cases in my constituency and probably for the majority overall, they are on 50% capacity. It is difficult and frustrating to comprehend this and I am glad that this is being reviewed.
I agree with Deputy Carthy that it needs to be done on the basis of expanding capacity rather than on dividing what is there.
In the long run, expanding school transport is a no-brainer in every respect, from an equality, traffic, and crucially, from a climate change point of view. It makes sense in every respect to try to continuously scale up school transport in order that most students are not going to school in a car but are going to school in a bus with their peers. That is what makes sense.
I thank the Deputies. I confirm, once again, that the planning for school transport for the 2021-22 school year has proceeded on the basis that the public health measures in place at schools closed at the end of last year would remain as term began in this new school year. This included the recommendation from public health that post-primary services would operate at 50% capacity and that masks would be worn. However, as we have said, as the vaccination programme for children and post-primary services have rolled out and as the lifting of restrictions on public transport services proceeds, the capacity limit of 50% on post-primary school transport services will now be subject to an ongoing review by the Department and that will be considered within the next number of weeks.
I wish to acknowledge again that in the region of 98% of all valid and paid-on-time applicants have been issued a ticket. This is a significant percentage but as I have also already alluded to earlier, a further percentage change will happen because tickets are continuing to be issued. This is distinct progress on where we were in previous years.
I also note the comments of the Deputies in moving from 50% to 100% but this will be done on the back of public health advice and prudence for our students.