Seanad debates

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

6:00 am

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I wish to raise the issue of changes that have been made to the post-primary school transport scheme. The changes were introduced by the previous Government but a number of elements of that scheme come into effect this September.

There were a number of issues in County Waterford which, thankfully, have been resolved this year due to the concessionary transport places on the buses. I have had e-mail exchanges with the Department of Education and Skills and with Bus Éireann. Both bodies have been helpful in providing information so I wish to thank the Minister of State for that.

A number of issues need to be addressed for 2013 and subsequent years, however. The first one concerns information that is given to parents. As the Minister of State knows, many parents apply for school transport in March or April. This year, in parts of Waterford that were affected by the changes to this scheme, parents had to go to their nearest education centre or they would not qualify for school transport. They made the application in March or April but were not notified of the changes which come into effect in September. That was an omission by Bus Éireann. I know the change was introduced by the previous Government and it could be argued that people were personally responsible to find the information. It is unreasonable, however, to expect people to know every single change which is made in a budget. The first mistake was that Bus Éireann simply did not inform people when making their applications that a number of changes had been made which might affect their children's places on the bus.

The second issue concerns the eligibility criteria, which the Minister of State could examine for future years. It is clear that one must attend one's nearest education centre having regard to ethos and language, but there is no regard for county boundaries or road infrastructure. I will cite a number of examples. Portlaw was one area of concern in County Waterford but thankfully when 86 students applied for school transport there were sufficient places for them. Everybody is therefore sorted this year but in reality some of these people are getting concessionary places. What will happen in 2013 and 2014? They were being asked to go Carrick-on-Suir which is in Tipperary, rather than the school in Kilmacthomas which is attended by their siblings and which their parents attended.

The other question concerns how distance eligibility criteria are measured. According to the Department's own guidelines, distance eligibility will be determined by Bus Éireann by measuring the shortest traversable route from the child's home to the relevant education centre. In some cases, however, Bus Éireann was measuring the distance from one post office to another. The reason the company gave was that if there is more than one education centre then that is what they do. For example, pupils in Portlaw were not having the distance measured from their home to the nearest school in Carrick-on-Suir, but from the post office in Portlaw to the post office in Carrick-on-Suir. The closest school for some parents was Kilmacthomas because they were on the outskirts of Portlaw. Because of the way it was measured, however, it meant that they did not qualify and are now classed as concessionary. That situation needs to be re-examined.

I could not find the words "from post office to post office" in any of the documents, so I wonder where that came from. Nor could I see any discretionary element because it seems to be very clear in referring to "the shortest traversable route from the child's home". Perhaps the Minister of State could offer some clarification on that matter. If he does not have the information today, perhaps he could provide it by e-mail.

Another issue concerns choice, which involved parents in Dunmore East. That marries with the road infrastructure argument as well. Their nearest secondary school is in Tramore. Anybody from Dunmore East seeking a secondary school would send their children into the city. There is only a kilometre in the difference but the road infrastructure is much better. The road from Dunmore East to Tramore is a secondary one and would not be safe for a school bus in my view. There is a very good road between Dunmore East and Waterford city, so it would make more sense to use it. Parents have a choice of seven or eight schools in the city, yet there is only one in Tramore.

There is also the question of whether schools in those areas that have now become the nearest education centre, have the capacity to meet the needs of those pupils. The spatial planning for those schools must also be examined.

I am raising these genuine issues which the Minister of State could examine for future years. I wish to put on the record, however, the fact that the Minister of State and his officials have been very helpful in this regard. In addition, Bus Éireann has given support to parents who found themselves in a position that could have posed difficulties. We have got over it this year but there may be problems in 2013 and subsequent years. I ask the Minister of State to look at the school transport scheme.


No comments

Log in or join to post a public comment.