Tuesday, 14 May 2013
School Transport Provision
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, for coming to the Chamber to deal with this matter.
Ardvarney national school in north Leitrim has 41 pupils, 28 of whom avail of school transport. Of these 28, 14 are deemed by the Department of Education and Skills and Bus Éireann to be eligible for free school transport, with the remainder availing of the concessionary scheme. I was recently made aware that, from September, the school was at risk of losing one of the two school buses which served these pupils. The school made this discovery by chance and it was even suggested the news was not to be broken until the summer holiday, when it would be more difficult to harness community assistance to lobby for a reversal of the decision.
The 2013-14 enrolment for Ardvarney national school is up to 43, with the numbers projected to avail of the school transport service expected to remain more or less the same. Several of the pupils availing of the concessionary arrangement were deemed ineligible by Bus Éireann for the free scheme because of their proximity to another school which was not only outside the parish but also the diocese. The fact remains that these students are living within the traditional and ongoing catchment area for Ardvarney national school. While some of them do live closer to another school, they have chosen to attend Ardvarney national school because it is their parish school, which is perfectly understandable.
The changes proposed in 2011 in terms of eligibility, requiring a minimum of ten eligible students instead of seven, have led to a situation where one of the two school buses serving the school will be withdrawn in September. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, is constantly referring to the viability of smaller schools. Ardvarney national school, with 41 children, has doubled its enrolment in the past five years. In fact, enrolment projections based on an assessment of families living in the area suggest the number of children eligible for the free scheme will increase to 16 in the next few years, which means that a single 14 seater bus would no longer be sufficient. There is also a suggestion Bus Éireann has adjusted the catchment area for the school such that children living in the Killavoggy end of the parish will not be deemed eligible, yet without being advised of anything to the contrary, children from that townland have enrolled in the school in recent years and been deemed eligible under the transport scheme. That does not seem to make sense.
While we all accept the need to have criteria in place to determine eligibility for school transport, there is surely nothing in the spirit of these provisions which seeks to threaten the very viability of a school that has doubled its enrolment in recent years. The proposed curtailment of the service to pupils of Ardvarney national school will unnecessarily divide and decimate a community which has many generations of history. There are not too many rural schools that have doubled their enrolment in such a short timeframe. Will the Minister of State undertake to intervene personally in the matter? I am aware that he is inundated with requests of this nature during Adjournment debates in both Houses, but I contend none is more worthy than this. The proposal would immediately impact on 30% of the enrolment of the school. One of the most frustrating issues for those of us seeking a solution to the matter is that Bus Éireann is directing us to the Department, while the Department is telling us it is a matter for Bus Éireann. In the meantime, the future of a viable school is threatened. The Minister of State has the power to ensure the spirit of the Department's criteria is fulfilled in this case rather than eliminating a school that is not only viable but also central to its community.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I will begin by offering Members an outline of the extent of the school transport service. 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 115,000 children, including more than 8,000 with special needs, are transported in approximately 4,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country. Catchment areas are no longer a feature of the primary school transport scheme. At primary level, children are eligible for transport to a particular school where they reside not less than 3.2 km from it and where it is determined to be their nearest national school, having regard to ethos and language. Bus Éireann is responsible for the planning and scheduling of school transport routes and services. The company endeavours, within available resources, to ensure each eligible child has a reasonable level of school transport service in the context of the scheme nationally.
In regard to the case raised by the Senator, Bus Éireann has advised that two services are operating to Ardvarney national school for the 2012-13 school year. These services accommodate a total of 13 children who are eligible for school transport, the remaining seats being allocated to children who are not eligible but are availing of the service on a concessionary basis. The closing date for receipt of school transport applications for the 2013-14 school year was 26 April. The Senator will appreciate that decisions regarding the retention or establishment of transport services for the next school year will be made by Bus Éireann only after all applications have been received and assessed. The retention or establishment of services is determined, in the first instance, by the number and location of children who meet the eligibility criteria. The terms of the schemes are applied equitably on a national basis.
I thank the Minister of State for his response, but it is entirely unsatisfactory. It is an abdication of responsibility to claim this is a matter for Bus Éireann. The fact is that the spirit of the legislation and the Department's own criteria are not being followed in this case. Going around the country engaging in a literal interpretation of every rule will mean rural communities are unnecessarily decimated. Surely common sense and scheduling can achieve the required savings, while also ensuring rural communities are not further damaged because of a shortage of school transport, as they have been by the closure of Garda stations and countless other cutbacks in recent years.
I am far from abdicating my responsibility in this area. On the contrary, I am honouring my responsibility to ensure scarce national resources are used in the most efficient way possible. I remind the Senator that these decisions emanated from a value for money report initiated by a former colleague of his who rightly sought a forensic assessment of the costs associated with school transport. Several of the conclusions emanating from that analysis were put into place in 2011, including the requirement that children should be eligible for transportation to their nearest school only. That is a fair, logical and economically sound principle which is being adhered to equitably on a national basis.