Wednesday, 9 May 2012
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, to the House. Some weeks ago a group of students from Killaloe visited Leinster House on their own initiative. While such groups are often invited by Members and other public representatives to visit the Houses of the Oireachtas, these children took it upon themselves to write to the Superintendent requesting a tour. During my meeting with them, those from the Clonlara area who are attending St. Anne's community college in Killaloe expressed concern that the bus service which traditionally brings students from that area to and from Killaloe is to be discontinued next year, if not for all students then at least for those commencing at St. Anne's next September.
Most schools in Limerick city, especially in the Clonlara area, are suffering severe overcrowding. As a consequence, many families send their children to Killaloe, which is quite close to the city, where they have a chance to partake of their education in an uncrowded environment. That practice has been customary in this area of south-east Clare for many years. I ask the Minister of State to be flexible in his assessment of the school transport arrangements in respect of St. Anne's community college in Killaloe next year and to take into consideration local customs that have continued for many years. The Minister of State is very accommodating in general and always endeavours to find common sense solutions, as I am sure he will do in this case.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter. School transport is a very significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on my Department's behalf and covering more than 82 million km annually. In the region of 113, 000 children, including more than 8,000 with special needs, are transported in approximately 4,000 vehicles every day to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country. The current system for determining eligibility for school transport at post-primary level has been in place for more than 40 years. In 1966, when the Government announced the introduction of free post-primary education, the country was divided for planning purposes into geographic districts, also referred to as catchment areas, each with several primary schools feeding into a post-primary centre with one or more second level schools.
The definition of school transport catchment boundaries has been the subject of many submissions and representations to the Department over the years, with a widely held view that the current boundary areas do not reflect changed demographics. Changes in the post-primary school transport scheme were announced in budget 2011. One of these, which will take effect from the commencement of the 2012-13 school year, means the use of the catchment area system as a means of determining school transport eligibility will cease for all pupils newly entering a post-primary school. This change is not being introduced until this September, some 20 months after the budget announcement, to allow parents of children newly entering post-primary school ample time to consider their school choice options, taking account of the revised school eligibility arrangements. From this date, school transport eligibility for all new pupils entering a post-primary school will be determined simply by reference to the distance they reside from their nearest post-primary education centre, having regard to ethos and language. In general, eligible pupils who currently avail 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.
The closing date for receipt of school transport applications for the 2012-2013 school year was Friday, 27 April 2012. Bus Éireann has advised that only three new pupils from the Clonlara area had applied for school transport to St. Anne's community college, Killaloe by this deadline. Pupils who are not eligible under the post-primary school transport scheme may apply for transport on a concessionary basis in accordance with the terms of the scheme. To reiterate, the mechanism whereby it will be determined whether children are entitled to a school transport service to a particular school is changing this September. I expect that change to be for the better, there being a reasonable and sensible rationale behind it. It will make the operation of the scheme much more streamlined. The budgetary decision taken in 2011 concluded, on the basis of a value for money report, that it would save the Department money. It will also make it easier for parents to identify the post-primary school in respect of which their children are entitled to a transport service. There is no doubt that difficulties will arise throughout the State, as they have done in my constituency in east Galway, in Donegal and elsewhere. However, once all these issues are ironed out, I am confident the new arrangements for transporting children to their nearest school will prove far more beneficial and effective.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I agree that the end result of the changes he has outlined will be a far better and more streamlined system. There seems to be a ray of hope for the three children from Clonlara who wish to attend St. Anne's community college in Killaloe in September 2012 in the context of the concessionary travel system to which the Minister of State referred. Will this effectively function as an in-built appeals process, so to speak?
To clarify, the children from the Clonlara area who are attending school in Killaloe will be allowed to complete their studies and to access school transport until such time as they complete their leaving certificate. If there are sufficient children from Clonlara in that situation, we are obliged to provide a transport service for them. Moreover, if seats are available on the service, the children who plan to commence study in Killaloe next September will have access to those concessionary seats. While this arrangement could not be described as an appeals process, it is certainly an opportunity for children who are beginning their education in Killaloe next year to avail of the service, where seats are available. The price of a concessionary ticket is the same as that of a standard ticket, so there is no added expense. I am confident this concessionary option will allow many children in locations throughout the State to continue to access transport to the school of their choice until such time as this existing cohort works its way through the school system.