Thursday, 12 May 2022
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
71. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills further to Question No. 150 of 1 February 2022, if a review of the existing school bus allocation system has been completed; if her attention has been drawn to the need to increase flexibility in ticket allocation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23552/22]
We have made great strides in terms of sustainable transport. However, one of the areas that still needs work is the school transport system and school buses in particular. Further to Question No. 150 of 1 February, 2022, has the review of the existing school bus allocation system been completed and has the Minister's attention been drawn to the need to increase flexibility in ticket allocation?
School transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department of Education. In the current school year more than 121,400 children, including in excess of 15,500 children with special educational needs, are transported every day to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country at a cost of more than €289 million in 2021.
Under the terms of the school transport schemes, children are eligible for transport at primary level where they reside not less than 3.2 km from and are attending their nearest national school, and at post-primary level where they reside not less than 4.8 km from and are attending their nearest post-primary school or education centre as determined by the Department or Bus Éireann, having regard to ethos and language.
As the Deputy is aware, the Department commenced a review of the school transport scheme in February 2021. The review is being conducted with a view to examining the current scheme, how it operates, its broader effectiveness and sustainability, and that it adequately supports the provision of services to students and their families. The review encompasses the school transport scheme for children with special educational needs and the primary and post-primary school transport schemes in terms of how each element of the schemes currently operates, including eligibility criteria, trends, costs and cost drivers, and overall effectiveness in meeting the objectives of the schemes. The review will also examine the potential for integration of different strands of the scheme and a more co-ordinated approach with other Departments that also use transport services.
Following commencement of this review, the steering group presented me with an initial interim report in June 2021. Following consideration of this report, I approved the extension of temporary alleviation measures for the 2021-2022 school year for transport for post-primary students who were otherwise eligible for school transport but were attending their second-nearest school and had applied and paid on time.
Wider considerations relating to operation of the scheme are now taking place in the next phase of the review which is under way. The technical working group has undertaken extensive consultation over recent months, including running a public survey for parents and guardians and students who use the service and those who do not use the service but who would like to do so. The group has also consulted a broad array of stakeholders, including schools, special education interest groups, industry representatives and other Departments.
As a member of the Green Party I may believe in recycling, but that was almost verbatim the answer that was received to the parliamentary question submitted on 1 February. I would have hoped to see some movement forward since then. For many children, the school bus is their first experience of public transport. Indeed, that was the case for me, back in the middle ages when I was taking the school bus. Perhaps we should not base policy on specific instances but parents in Butlerstown, my home parish, are paying privately for school bus transport to Tramore and the costs are going through the roof. The need is already proven. They are doing this themselves to get children to the nearest available school. I can say, as a vocal advocate for active travel, including walking and cycling, that there is no earthly way I would put my 14-year-old on a bike on those roads, knowing the traffic. The need is there and has been proven and we need to build flexibility into the system.
I say to the Deputy that facts are facts and they remain as facts, irrespective of the timeframe. Significant progress has been made. The Deputy will be aware, for example, that last year as an interim measure, eligibility criteria were adjusted.
Rather than eligibility revolving around the nearest school, I put in place measures so that students would be facilitated if they were opting to go to their second-nearest school. This has alleviated quite considerably many of the difficulties that heretofore had been experienced. To be fair, I believe there has been a general acknowledgement of the importance of this progressive move.
The steering group has undertaken extraordinarily efficient public consultation that involved meeting with pupils and parents and consulting the broadest range of stakeholders by actively seeking their opinions so we could have a system in place that would meet the demands of the time in terms of climate and the demands of the time in terms of capacity for students. That work is nearing completion.
I thank the Minister. I acknowledge the good work that is under way and the additional flexibility that is being built in. It would be churlish not to. I would like to have an idea of the actual timeline for that review being completed. We were initially given an indication of quarter 1 of 2022 and we would like to see it over the line.
I will refer to a specific instance where flexibility is needed. There is school transport available that is passing quite close to the area in question. It passes from Dunhill into Tramore. The people in Dunhill satisfy the eligibility criteria for distance. Not every seat on the bus is full. It makes eminent sense to me to try to build in that flexibility to maximise the transport capacity we have and to provide a sustainable service for those parents who want to get their kids to school safely and in a sustainable way.
The decision to use the second-nearest school for these purposes was an inspired one. I agree with the Minister that it has made a huge difference. Will the Minister clarify if it is in place again this year? Perhaps she is familiar with the route between Carrigtwohill and Cobh. Can girls from Cobh now get transport to the school in Carrigtwohill, which would be their second-nearest school? Would this measure apply in those instances? As the Minister is aware, children going to St. Aloysius College from Cobh must pay privately. It is very expensive. There is no real transport there. It would take a lot of cars off the road. Perhaps the Minister could clarify that. The same applies on the Knockraha to Carrigtwohill route, with Glanmire being the nearest school and Carrigtwohill being the second nearest. Would this apply also in these instances?
I ask the Minister to look again at the need to appeal the application of the section 29 model that is there at the moment, which is quite legalistic. If parents must get transport to school, that is the method they must use if the nearest school is full.
I wish to raise the issue of the viability of the school bus transport service. Providers are under huge pressure with costs. The Minister is aware of this. The Coach Tourism and Transport Council has indicated that 95% of providers are under pressure to deliver services until the end of year. We have seen flexibility from the Government as announced in recent days around construction costs. School transport providers are similarly locked into contracts that are unviable for them. We want to see school bus transport expanded but will we have the service providers to do this? I am concerned about that. I am aware that there are discussions between the Department, Bus Éireann and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Can I get an update on those discussions? When can providers expect to hear from the Minister?
I appreciate the Minister's interest in this particular issue as it affects all schools, or most schools, throughout the country. There are particular sensitive issues in many cases where parents, including the parents of children with special needs, are forced to drive their children to school even though the relevant bus already passes their door. They must drive their children to school and travel the same road on which the approved school bus travels, behind the school bus, and enter the school premises at the same time. Despite the extenuating circumstances of any special needs or responsibilities, no movement has been made so far in accommodating them. I believe there is a compelling case there and I would strongly urge it.
I appreciate the interest across the floor from all Deputies in the whole school transport system. It is an issue I am very familiar with, given my constituency. There has been a body of work. I am glad there is an acknowledgement that the improvements made in the interim, and particularly around the second-nearest school, have considerably helped with access.
I was asked a direct question about the measures for the 2022-23 school year. They will be announced imminently. The work of the review group is continuing apace, but it is my intention that in the shortest timeframe possible, very shortly, I will be making an announcement on the measures for the 2022-23 school year. The focus here is to ensure there is flexibility, access and greater ability for people to avail of the school transport system.
A specific issue was raised around fuel. The Deputy is correct. The discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are ongoing. It is my hope and expectation that they will conclude as soon as possible. Those discussions are continuing with the Department.