Seanad debates

Tuesday, 26 September 2023

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Transport

1:00 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

The Minister, Deputy Foley, is not able to attend but I am in the Department with her. I thank Senator Lombard for raising this issue, which I accept is an issue around the country. Before I address the specific issues raised, I wish to provide an outline on the extent of the transport scheme, notwithstanding what the Senator said. The school transport scheme is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. More than 149,000 children, including 18,000 with special needs, were transported on a daily basis last year. More than 5,400 children who arrived from Ukraine to Ireland were provided with services.

The cost of the scheme was €338.9 million last year. The school transport scheme is very important. We acknowledge that. The purpose of the scheme is to have regard to resources to support transport to and from schools for children who reside remote from the nearest school. There has been an increase in both applications and tickets issued this year in comparison to last year. We had a 12% increase on the number of tickets this year over last year. With regard to special education needs transport services, more than 5,000 new applications have been received and 1,400 of these have been received since July alone. This compares to 3,670 new applications this time last year.

As the Senator is aware, a review of the school transport scheme is nearing completion. The review is being conducted with a view to examining the current scheme and its broader effectiveness and sustainability and to ensure it services students and their families adequately. The final review will include recommendations. Once approved by the Government, it is planned that the review will be published.

Bus Éireann has confirmed that no services were cancelled this year. However, it has been reported that there are particular issues with the resource availability of drivers and contractors and that a number of contractors continue to hand back contracts or, in some cases, there have been zero bids for contracts. This is against a backdrop of significant shortages of drivers in the labour market overall and competing demands for drivers to deliver additional public transport initiatives such as Connecting Ireland, BusConnects and Local Links. Indeed, in my area we have had some similar issues with school transport and with public transport in terms of the shortage of drivers. Bus Éireann, though, is continuing to prioritise the sourcing of vehicles and drivers. However, it has confirmed that as of 22 September, a number of routes remain without a service, which is about 1.25% of pupils and less than 2% of vehicles - that is too many, but that is the figure - with services being provided for close to 99% of pupils on a daily basis. The number of children with special educational needs affected is estimated at approximately 0.75% of pupils. They are particularly difficult cases, however, because in many cases those children need to travel significant distances. I know that because, again, I have had similar issues in my own area so I can certainly empathise with much of what the Senator is saying.

Some services are expected to resume as soon as an escort has been sourced and we are working with schools to ensure these resources are put in place as a priority. Bus Éireann has apologised for any inconvenience caused by the disruption and is trying to rectify the situation at pace. Bus Éireann continues to engage directly with families affected with regular communications updating them on the position of the transport service. The Department has established an exceptional no-service interim grant to help with the cost of private transport arrangements families may have to put in place. The Department has contacted families directly about this.

I thank Senator Lombard for raising this issue and for the opportunity to update him on the school transport scheme. It is regrettable that a number of contractors have handed back contracts at short notice. Bus Éireann, though, is prioritising the establishment of new services for the families affected. Bus Éireann continues to engage with families directly affected and will and should update them again this week. I mentioned already the exceptional interim grant that is available. I will happily answer other questions.


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