Wednesday, 14 September 2022
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source
I thank the Senators for raising these matters. Before I address the specific issues raised, I will provide an outline of the significant extent of the school transport scheme which provides transport on a daily basis for tens of thousands of children across the country to mainstream and special education settings. The purpose of the school transport scheme is, having regard to available resources, to support the transport to and from school of children who reside remote from their nearest school. In July 2022, the Government announced funding for the waiving of school transport scheme fees for the 2020-23 school year as part of an extraordinary package of cost-of-living measures. This measure has saved families up to €650 per year.
School transport ticket registration for the 2022-23 year closed on 29 July, by which time almost 130,000 applications or registrations were received for mainstream school transport. This figure includes 44,299 new applications, as well as rollovers from the previous school year. This indicates the very strong level of demand for tickets. Some 124,000 tickets for the mainstream scheme alone have already been issued to applicants. At the start of the last school year, approximately 103,000 children were carried on mainstream school transport services. Therefore, approximately 21,000 additional places have already been created free of charge. There has been an increase in tickets allocated across all counties. We are continuing to process applications and to issue tickets as soon as extra buses and drivers are sourced and become available to provide transport to the higher numbers qualifying for the service.However, regrettably the unprecedented numbers of new applications for the upcoming school year have led to some delays in issuing tickets.
The normal eligibility criteria of the scheme still apply and tickets continue to be allocated in line with these criteria. Pupils at primary level are eligible where they live no less than 3.2 km from their nearest primary school. At post-primary level, students who live no less than 4.8 km from and are attending their nearest or next-nearest post-primary school are eligible. Any pupils who do not meet these criteria are deemed not eligible, or otherwise known as concessionary applicants, and are allocated a ticket, as has been previously the case, based on the availability of a seat when all eligible children have been catered for.
In line with normal practice, all eligible children who completed the application and ticket registration process on time for the 2022-23 school year will be accommodated on school transport services where such services are in operation.
In addition, pending completion of the outcome of the full review of the school transport scheme, temporary alleviation measures at post-primary level continue for the 2022-23 school year. As I previously outlined, these measures will provide transport for students who are attending their next-nearest post-primary school.
With regard to the review of the school transport scheme, the Department commenced a review in February 2021. The review is being conducted with a view to examining the current scheme and how it currently 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 also. The review of the primary and post-primary school transport schemes will examine each element of the schemes and includes eligibility criteria, trends, costs, 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.
Wider considerations relating to operation of the scheme are taking place in the current phase of the review. As part of the current phase of the review, the technical working group has undertaken extensive consultation, including running a public survey for parents, guardians and students who use the service and those who do not use the service but who would like to. These engagements have yielded extensive data for consideration. The group has also consulted a broad array of stakeholders, including schools, special education interest groups, industry representatives and other Departments.
While work on the review was impacted somewhat by the challenges of the pandemic and the impact of the current conflict in Ukraine, it is anticipated that the final phases of the review will be completed shortly, with recommendations on the future operation of the Department's school transport scheme. The steering group will continue to report to me on an interim basis as regards the progress of the review.