Seanad debates

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Commencement Matters

School Transport Eligibility

10:30 am

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Tá mé an-bhuíoch dó faoi teacht isteach leis an gceist seo a phlé. Chuaigh muid chuig na daoine éagsúla a bhaineann leis an gceist seo, ach níor éirigh linn aon réiteach sásúil a fháil. We have tried to have this issue resolved through a number of channels, but we keep hitting a brick wall. There was no other option but to raise it with the Minister in the House. We are asking the Minister for Education and Skills if she thinks it is acceptable that a 13 year old boy with Asperger's syndrome had his application for school transport to a school of his choice turned down by a special education needs organiser, SENO, on the grounds that there is a school with fewer resources closer to his home and whether the Minister thinks it is acceptable for a SENO to base such decisions purely on distance to the nearest school and to ignore the quality of education and resources available at schools and the overall long-term interests of the young person concerned.

This 13 year old boy was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome in 2007. The parents visited six schools during 2013 before agreeing on a particular school. The child visited two of the schools in 2013 before the final school was selected. Obviously it is a specific situation and the child must be comfortable in the school. The child was accepted into the school in February 2014 and started the transition from primary school to that college in April and May 2014. The transition took ten days. The school in question applied for school transport on his behalf to a SENO in Sligo in May 2014. The application was turned down in June 2014 because there is a school in County Mayo which is 12 km closer to the child's home. The basis of the decision was the rule regarding the distance to the nearest school, not the quality of the education or the resources available in the school. That was the slat tomhais or the only measure used; it was not the education stipulation.

The decision was made without consulting the parents or other health care professionals who had been involved in the child's education in primary school, such as the occupational therapist, speech and language therapist and educational or clinical psychologist, which the parents believe is in breach of section 8(3) of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act 2004. The Health Service Executive, HSE, benefits currently provided for the boy in Sligo would cease to be provided if he moves to the other school or if he is forced to attend a school in a different county.

This is imposing a huge burden on the family. At present, the parents are driving him to the school and that is costing approximately €150 per week in fuel. Due to the lack of transport provision, one of the parents who had returned to education has had to cease attending the third level course because it is no longer feasible for them to continue the course due to the travel, cost and so forth. The other parent is a homemaker and there are other children in the family.

This is a situation where the rule makes no sense. I can understand why the Department of Education and Skills would state that school transport must be provided to the nearest school for a child in a normal situation, but this is a very specific and exceptional scenario. The fact that the child has Asperger's syndrome should be taken into consideration. The trauma of trying to move a child with this type of medical condition from a school and getting them settled in a new school must be taken into consideration. We have gone down the different possible routes with this case.I do hope the Minister can intervene and try to bring a little bit of sense to bear on this issue and ensure that the child in question can be kept in the school he has become used to. There is a difference of only 12 km between it and the other school to which SENO has said it is willing to provide transport. I look forward to the Minister's reply, which I hope will be positive.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this matter today. School transport is a very significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. Approximately 113,000 children, including almost 10,000 children with special educational needs, are transported on a daily basis to schools throughout the country during the school year. This network involves approximately 4,000 vehicles using more than 6,000 routes and covering over 82 million km annually. Expenditure on school transport for children with special educational needs currently is €69 million, or 40% of the total budget for school transport provision.

The case the Senator outlined is similar to others and is not unique. Quite a number of young people with special needs avail of school transport through the education system. The purpose of the school transport scheme for children with special educational needs is, having regard to available resources, to support the transport to and from school of children with special educational needs arising from a diagnosed disability. Children with special educational needs are eligible for school transport if they are attending the nearest recognised school or unit that is or can be resourced to meet their special educational needs under Department of Education and Skills criteria.

School placement is determined by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, through its network of special educational needs organisers, SENOs. School transport eligibility is then determined based on the terms of the scheme I have just set out. It is based on the nearest recognised school which has or can have the resources. It is often the case that a school has been given extra resources to match the needs of a child.

In addition, to assist parents, the NCSE has published guidelines on choosing a school, which are available on its website at These guidelines were developed to inform parents about the range of educational placements and supports that are now available for their children. The guidelines also set out a number of factors that parents might want to take into account when choosing a school for their children, such as school transport.

The Senator is aware that the child in this case is not attending his nearest school and is therefore not eligible for school transport. I believe the policy of eligibility for school transport based on attendance at the nearest school or unit is acceptable, given that resources can be allocated to a school if necessary. All State-funded primary and post-primary schools have been allocated additional resources to provide for children with special educational needs enrolled in school. Primary and post-primary schools have a permanent allocation of additional teaching supports to provide for children whose educational psychological assessment places them in the high-incidence or less complex disability category.

Separately, the NCSE allocates special needs assistants for children with additional care needs, as outlined in circular 0030/2014, along with additional resource teaching hours for children who have been assessed within the low-incidence or more complex category of special need, as defined by my Department's circular Sp Ed 02/05. The NCSE operates within my Department's established criteria for the allocation of special education supports and the staffing resources available to my Department.

The Senator may also be aware that the NCSE is currently at an advanced stage in the preparation of policy advice on the education of children with autism. I expect its final report will reflect the broadest possible range of views, both national and international, and will provide recommendations which will assist the development of policy for future years.

Regarding the provision of therapeutic services such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and psychological services, these are matters for the Health Service Executive and are not a factor in identifying the nearest recognised placement or for transport eligibility purposes. I know a lot of effort and detail went into the choice of school for the child to whom the Senator referred and the parents visited six or seven schools. I wish to advise that while it is the prerogative of parents to send their children to the school of their choice, eligibility for school transport is to the nearest school or unit. The terms of the school transport scheme for children with special educational needs are applied equitably on a national basis. There is no opportunity for me to intervene. I have dealt with many similar cases in the past seven or eight months. The criteria are in place, and it is not within my gift to change them for one case. There is a duty to apply the rules equitably and fairly across the system. It is very clear that schools are given the resources to match needs, but parents have to pick the nearest school. I am sorry, but the rules have to be fair across the board.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response, but in this case the law is an ass. We are not making the child's needs paramount; rather, we are putting rules and regulations within a system of administration before him. I am very sorry that this is the response we have received. I ask the Minister of State to seek a specific review of the case, because if the child has to move to a different school he will lose the current support he receives from Sligo HSE, which will be detrimental to his health and well-being. It is a serious issue and I would welcome a review of the case if the Minister of State is willing to do so.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I certainly will. I have a brief summary of the case and went through many of the issues. I can see that the decision is in line with policy, but I will take up the file and go through it in detail, which I would do for all such cases.

There is often a perception that such cases are exceptional, but they are not. They are quite common, and the policy was set to the effect that children would go to the nearest school that had or could have the resources to match needs. In this case, the family picked a different school which is further away. The criteria are quite clear that children must attend the nearest school which can accommodate them. Young people in other counties travel for 80 or 90 km and receive transport because they are attending the most suitable schools which had the required resources.

There are 10,000 cases, many of which are quite similar to this one. I have reviewed many files, and will review this one to see if anything was missed. I am not allowed to change the rules because that would not be fair to everybody else. There are rules for a reason. A review is taking place, which may help to change things in the future. At the Senator's request I will review the file in detail and see if there are any issues we can help with in case something was missed.