Seanad debates

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Commencement Matters

School Transport Eligibility

2:30 pm

Photo of John HalliganJohn Halligan (Waterford, Independent) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Senator for raising the matter. School transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. During the 2015-16 school year, approximately 114,000 children, including almost 10,000 children with special needs, were transported on a daily basis to schools nationally. That is 114,000 to school and 114,000 from school. The 10,000 children with special needs are transported from door to door. It is a significant logistics operation that goes on almost every day.

I will first set out the purpose of the school transport scheme. Having regard to available resources, the purpose of the scheme is to support and transport to and from schools children who reside at a remote distance from the nearest school. Children are eligible for transport where they reside not less than 4.8 km from their nearest post-primary school or 3.2 km from their nearest primary school as determined by the Department and Bus Éireann, having regard to ethos and language.

While it is the prerogative of parents to send their children to the school of their choice, eligibility for school transport is to the nearest school or education centre. Children who are not eligible for school transport may apply for transport on a concessionary basis only. The difficulties we have currently are with concessionary tickets as these have increased dramatically over the last number of years. At one stage, there were approximately 5,000 such tickets whereas there are now approximately 22,000 concessionary tickets for children using school transport. School transport is for eligible children who have been catered for in the payment of a school transport charge. After that, concessionary passengers are taken on board where there is room on the bus.

The programme for Government commits to reviewing the concessionary charges and rules elements of the school transport scheme prior to budget 2017. I have asked to meet representatives from all parties over the last number of weeks so that they could put forward suggestions for improving the scheme because there are some difficulties inherent in it, in particular in relation to concessionary tickets. I gave an undertaking, pending that review, that there was no planned programme to downsize buses in the current school year albeit there have been route changes and variations in line with the normal operational decision-making that occurs from year to year.

Any impact in terms of an increase or decrease in the availability of spaces nationally was marginal. The vast number of families and children who use the scheme are very happy with it, particularly the 10,000 children with special needs who are transported daily from door to door. I am absolutely aware of difficulties with concessionary passengers. Simply put, if there is a 20-seater bus catering to 15 eligible children and five concessionary passengers, and another child from the area becomes eligible for school transport, there is no choice but to remove one of the concessionary passengers from the bus. Legally and under the Department's rules, regulations and criteria, the eligible child has first call.We are having some difficulties with that. I do not like the idea of having to take any child off a bus. It is my belief that all children who need to be transported to school should be so transported. I assure the Senator, however, that there have been detailed ongoing discussions with all parties who were represented at a number of meetings I have had. They are formulating proposals to be sent back to the Department. We will then meet again, and if the Senator wishes to attend that meeting, there will be no problem. We will then meet representatives from the Department and Bus Éireann to tighten up the scheme. We will examine the scheme to see where there may be faults in it or elements upon which we can improve.

I hope we may have within a few weeks some suggestions to put to the Senator. The matter is complicated and detailed. However, when one considers that 114,000 children throughout the country are transported every day to and from school, it is a huge logistical exercise and problems can develop.


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