Wednesday, 18 July 2012
I thank the Minister of State for dealing with this matter. He has always been available and forthcoming on these issues.
Our concerns are about rural families. I accept that changes are required as a result of budgetary constraints and the Department must be aware of numbers and figures. However, in the case of rural areas, it is not always down to statistics and it is not always easy to define boundaries. I have been inundated with inquiries from concerned parents and grandparents in areas such as Ballyadams and Ballylinan and I am sure this also applies to other rural villages and parishes across the country. The changes in school bus transport initiated in the budget are now coming into play. Some of the implications may not have been anticipated. For instance, I am concerned about legacy issues. Generations of families may have attended a particular school in their locality which may not necessarily and technically be the school nearest to them. For instance, a brother and a sister may be attending a local primary school but a sibling due to start school next September will be informed that in order to avail of school bus transport he or she must attend another school which may well be in another parish or in another county in some instances. This is not fair nor does it make common sense, even though this is the rule. School-going siblings are being split up as a result and this is not sensible. Parents cannot be in two places at one time. Very often children may have to attend events beyond the scope of the school transport system and it is not possible for parents to divide themselves in half.
While the rules have to be applied I ask that some common sense would be factored into the arrangement and that perhaps an appeals process could be considered. I ask that inspectors applying the regulations would take into account when considering new applicants the fact that siblings already attend a school and that the family may have a connection over generations with a particular school. The new arrangements may be a burden and may cause unnecessary concern to families.
I thank Senator Whelan for sharing his time with me. I raised this matter on the Order of Business last week and Senator Cullinane also raised the same matter. I am concerned about choice. I agree with Senator Whelan on the need for an appeals process. If a family lives next to a big urban centre such as Kilkenny city with a wide choice of schools and school transport is available then that family has options. However, the new rules mean that a family living near a school must go to the nearest school. In these stringent economic times, families are using school transport to bring their children to school. Any extra expense of €250 is very difficult for an unemployed person and it means an extra payment of €7 per week. For instance, a child in fifth year will be allowed stay in the school transport system under the medical card system because they are a current student in a school but a sibling going into first year will be asked to pay €250 or else the parents will have to drive that child two and a half miles to pick up the bus somewhere else. This is a total of five miles per day and this could cost €7 per week when using a car. We are asking families who are unemployed to spend perhaps an extra €14 on school transport for their children.
Another issue arises in respect of county boundaries. We border Carlow on one side and some of the schools which are relatively close are actually in County Carlow. I know we are down on our luck in hurling at present but people in County Kilkenny see it as an issue if they have to send their children across the border to another county where they may not learn the skills of hurling as they would in a school in County Kilkenny. It is a parish issue and it is an issue of choice. An appeals system should be put in place so that a concession can be made in cases where there is not a great difference in distance between schools. The education of children is paramount.
I was involved with a school in Ballyhale where I was chairman of the board of management before I was elected to the Seanad. Ballyhale specialises in special needs and autism and Asperger's syndrome. A parent telephone me to say their child has been informed that the nearest school is St. Brigid's in Callan but Ballyhale is one kilometre further away. Their daughter has a learning disability. I am not saying St. Brigid's will not look after her but the natural choice for the parents would be Ballyhale because the father himself attended that school. Ballyhale would give the child the supports she needs. An appeals system would allow for this situation to be taken into consideration. It should be the case that learning supports should be in place in a school before a child with special needs is compelled to go on the bus. Choice is the main issue. I thank the Minister of State for his attendance and I thank Senator Whelan for raising this matter.
I thank the Senators for raising this matter today. School transport is a very significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on the Department's behalf and covering over 82 million km annually. Approximately 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.
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. I will explain the relevant changes to the primary school transport scheme more fully so the Senators will have a better understanding of them.
With effect from the 2012-13 school year, eligibility under the closed school rule will cease and eligibility for school transport will be confined to those children who reside not less than 3.2 km from and are attending their nearest national school, as determined by my Department and Bus Éireann, having regard to ethos and language. It is important to note that all existing eligible children who are not attending their nearest school will retain their school transport eligibility for the duration of their primary education cycle provided there is no change to their current circumstances.
It is a significant concession on the part of the Department that a child attending a school will receive school transport to that school for the duration of the child's time in the school. We argued for this concession but this in itself has led to the anomalous situations which the Senators have described. These situations will continue to arise during that transitional phase. The new cohort of pupils will follow the new arrangements.
The changes mean that greater consistency will be introduced in planning for school places, which is already based on local demographic trends, current and projected enrolments, recent and planned housing developments and the capacity of existing schools to meet demand for places. As part of the value for money review, Bus Éireann was requested to carry out a sample analysis of a number of school transport services. This in-depth analysis indicated that the vast majority of children, over 95%, availing of school transport services are in fact attending their nearest school and are therefore not affected by this change.
Children who are not eligible for school transport may apply for transport on a concessionary basis subject to a number of terms and conditions that are detailed in the primary school transport scheme. When I attended a number of public meetings around the country last year to explain to parents how this scheme would operate there was an accusation that there is a significant gulf between the charge of €50 for an eligible child and €200 for a non-eligible child. We have now narrowed that gap and are charging both concessionary and non-concessionary children €100. That was done in an effort to make the scheme more accessible to children and to make the changes we are applying more palatable and more easily absorbed by families. It is important to note that eligible children who hold a medical card and who are attending their nearest school will always be exempt from paying this charge.
The changes to the primary school transport scheme will be applied equitably on a national basis. That means eligibility for school transport will be easier to establish and the scheme will be simpler than it was in the past and more transparent for families and schools. There will be strange, anomalous situations when the radii of two schools almost intertwine. That will happen throughout the country. However, I am confident that those issues will be ironed out over the coming two or three years. We will arrive at a point, and this is what we wish to achieve, where parents can access a website, click on a map, find where their house and the school are located and be able to determine whether they are entitled to transport to that school. If so, they will be able to pay for and print a ticket on-line. That is the ultimate aim. We have invested some money towards ensuring we will arrive at that position quite soon, and this process of simplifying the school transport system is the first stage in achieving that. As I said earlier to Senator Cullinane, at a time when this country is experiencing serious financial difficulties one cannot argue that there is any logic or economic sense in transporting a child to a school other than his or her nearest school.
I thank the Minister of State for his fair answer. I am aware that in his constituency the Minister of State is encountering these types of situation personally. I am not seeking to break the rules but I earnestly request that the Minister consider situations where children are already attending a certain school and a sibling wishes to attend the same school. It will not break the bank or lead to a long-term problem to factor that in as a consideration. As the Minister said, it will work its way out through the system in due course without damaging the genuine objective of establishing a cost effective and transparent system that is applied equitably across the country.
I agree with Senator Whelan. The Minister mentioned that approximately 95% of all students attend their nearest school, so we are only talking about 5% of students and they will not all be medical card holders. I do not believe it is a major cost and it should be examined. How many children does the Minister think would be affected by these changes and what is the saving for the Department? Perhaps the Minister would consider putting an appeals process in place. It involves 5% of students and all of them will not be entitled to tickets under the medical card condition. It might be possible to look at this and give concessions where a bus is passing somebody's door and it makes sense not to have to transport the child two and a half miles to get the bus to the nearest school.
I must be frank and honest. It will not be possible to have such a system in place when the schools open on 1 September, but we will take the suggestions on board as we examine rolling out the transport system from September 2013 onwards.