Wednesday, 18 July 2012
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I wish to raise the issue of changes that have been made to the post-primary school transport scheme. The changes were introduced by the previous Government but a number of elements of that scheme come into effect this September.
There were a number of issues in County Waterford which, thankfully, have been resolved this year due to the concessionary transport places on the buses. I have had e-mail exchanges with the Department of Education and Skills and with Bus Éireann. Both bodies have been helpful in providing information so I wish to thank the Minister of State for that.
A number of issues need to be addressed for 2013 and subsequent years, however. The first one concerns information that is given to parents. As the Minister of State knows, many parents apply for school transport in March or April. This year, in parts of Waterford that were affected by the changes to this scheme, parents had to go to their nearest education centre or they would not qualify for school transport. They made the application in March or April but were not notified of the changes which come into effect in September. That was an omission by Bus Éireann. I know the change was introduced by the previous Government and it could be argued that people were personally responsible to find the information. It is unreasonable, however, to expect people to know every single change which is made in a budget. The first mistake was that Bus Éireann simply did not inform people when making their applications that a number of changes had been made which might affect their children's places on the bus.
The second issue concerns the eligibility criteria, which the Minister of State could examine for future years. It is clear that one must attend one's nearest education centre having regard to ethos and language, but there is no regard for county boundaries or road infrastructure. I will cite a number of examples. Portlaw was one area of concern in County Waterford but thankfully when 86 students applied for school transport there were sufficient places for them. Everybody is therefore sorted this year but in reality some of these people are getting concessionary places. What will happen in 2013 and 2014? They were being asked to go Carrick-on-Suir which is in Tipperary, rather than the school in Kilmacthomas which is attended by their siblings and which their parents attended.
The other question concerns how distance eligibility criteria are measured. According to the Department's own guidelines, distance eligibility will be determined by Bus Éireann by measuring the shortest traversable route from the child's home to the relevant education centre. In some cases, however, Bus Éireann was measuring the distance from one post office to another. The reason the company gave was that if there is more than one education centre then that is what they do. For example, pupils in Portlaw were not having the distance measured from their home to the nearest school in Carrick-on-Suir, but from the post office in Portlaw to the post office in Carrick-on-Suir. The closest school for some parents was Kilmacthomas because they were on the outskirts of Portlaw. Because of the way it was measured, however, it meant that they did not qualify and are now classed as concessionary. That situation needs to be re-examined.
I could not find the words "from post office to post office" in any of the documents, so I wonder where that came from. Nor could I see any discretionary element because it seems to be very clear in referring to "the shortest traversable route from the child's home". Perhaps the Minister of State could offer some clarification on that matter. If he does not have the information today, perhaps he could provide it by e-mail.
Another issue concerns choice, which involved parents in Dunmore East. That marries with the road infrastructure argument as well. Their nearest secondary school is in Tramore. Anybody from Dunmore East seeking a secondary school would send their children into the city. There is only a kilometre in the difference but the road infrastructure is much better. The road from Dunmore East to Tramore is a secondary one and would not be safe for a school bus in my view. There is a very good road between Dunmore East and Waterford city, so it would make more sense to use it. Parents have a choice of seven or eight schools in the city, yet there is only one in Tramore.
There is also the question of whether schools in those areas that have now become the nearest education centre, have the capacity to meet the needs of those pupils. The spatial planning for those schools must also be examined.
I am raising these genuine issues which the Minister of State could examine for future years. I wish to put on the record, however, the fact that the Minister of State and his officials have been very helpful in this regard. In addition, Bus Éireann has given support to parents who found themselves in a position that could have posed difficulties. We have got over it this year but there may be problems in 2013 and subsequent years. I ask the Minister of State to look at the school transport scheme.
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.
I thank the Minister of State for agreeing to investigate my first concern about the distance eligibility. At the end of his contribution, the Minister of State referred to efficiency and cost-effective schemes. We have no difficulty with cost-effective schemes. There is logic in people attending their nearest education centre. However, sometimes their nearest education centre is not the best choice because of the road infrastructure or because of county boundary issues. Those are practical considerations that need to be taken into account.
Some people are now availing of the concessionary transport, for example, in Tramore, where there is a place on the bus to go to Kilmacthomas or from Dunmore East to the city. However, if they are medical cardholders they need to pay the €350 and do not get the free transport, which is also a concern for many of those parents. There needs to be an element of choice. If there are six schools that are 7 km away and one school 6.5 km away and the road infrastructure is not the best, it makes perfect sense. My point is that there needs to be some flexibility. One could argue there was some with the catchment areas, although that gave rise to its own set of circumstances. While there may not be any perfect system, it could be tweaked to add value and improve it for all concerned.