Seanad debates

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

6:00 am

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)

I thank Senator Cullinane for raising this matter. School transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on my Department's behalf and covers over 82 million km annually. In the region of 113,000 children, including more than 8,000 children with special needs, are transported in approximately 4,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country. It is a major daily logistical effort to get those children safely to and from school. Indeed, it is a very costly effort.

The main objective of my Department's school transport scheme is to support the safe transport to and from school of children who would have difficulty travelling, for reasons of distance, to their nearest school if transport is not supported. That is the original ethos underpinning the school transport system, which was first introduced many decades ago.

I take it the Senator is referring to the changes regarding school transport eligibility for children attending post primary schools, which take effect from the beginning of the next school year in September.

The current system for determining eligibility for school transport at post-primary level has been in place for over 40 years. In 1966, when the then government announced the introduction of free post-primary education, the country was divided for planning purposes into geographical districts - also referred to colloquially as catchment areas - each with several primary schools feeding into a post-primary centre with one or more post-primary schools.

Post-primary pupils are eligible for transport if they reside 4.8 km or more from their local post-primary education centre - that is, the centre serving the catchment area in which they live. The definition of school transport catchment boundaries has been the cause of many submissions and representations to the Department over the years. It is widely considered by many that the current catchment boundary areas do not reflect changed demographics. They also lead to a significant amount of confusion amongst parents and school management, as to whether or not a child might be eligible to attend a particular school. Senator Cullinane mentioned earlier that the system as it is now envisaged, where a pupil is entitled to transport to the nearest school, has made the whole situation very clear. That is exactly what we are setting out to achieve.

Changes in the post-primary school transport scheme were announced in budget 2011. One of the changes that will take effect from the commencement of the 2012-13 school year means that the use of the catchment area system as a means of determining eligibility will cease for all pupils newly entering a post-primary school.

From this date, school transport eligibility for all new pupils entering a post-primary school will simply be determined by reference to the distance they reside from their nearest post-primary education centre, having regard to ethos and language. I take on board the concerns that Senator Cullinane has about other methods perhaps being used to determine how far a pupil resides from the nearest school. I will engage with my Department's school transport unit and Bus Éireann to see what mechanism is being used to determine that distance. I understand that it is the shortest traversable route from the young person's home to the front gate of their school, but perhaps another method is being used so we need to clarify that.

This eligibility criterion will be applied equitably across all schools transport provision on a national basis. In general, eligible pupils who are currently availing of school transport and who meet the distance criterion of 4.8 km, will retain their eligibility for the duration of their post-primary education, provided there is no change in their current circumstances.

On the planning of school infrastructure, the general approach of the Department is to plan on the basis of attendance of pupils at their nearest primary schools and that those primary schools then feed into attendance at the nearest post-primary schools or the nearest post-primary centre generally.

The changes announced in post-primary school transport services are in line with this approach and will result ultimately in a more efficient and cost-effective scheme.

At a time when this country is losing €44 million per day, one cannot argue that we should be transporting children to a school other than the one nearest to their home. Senator Cullinane mentioned that we are somehow impinging on parental choice when it comes to determining what post-primary school children should attend. I would argue that we are not, however. Ultimately, it is the parents' decision as to which school they sent their child to. It never has been, is not and never will be possible to provide a school transport system that somehow serves that need. All we can endeavour to do is transport children to their nearest school. That is a significant service on the part of the State, costing on average €1,000 per annum per child for which we charge a fraction of that cost. We are doing an exceptional job in very difficult budgetary times.


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