Thursday, 7 May 2015
School Transport Provision
I welcome the Minister to the House. My topic relates to school transport and the situation facing one particular family in County Cavan. The family had applied online for school transport and were told they were eligible for it. They got their school tickets and the children were initially picked up by a bus. However, they then received notification that although they were eligible for school transport no school transport service was currently available to take them to school. They were then told that they would be able to receive the remote area grant towards the cost of private school transport arrangements.
The reason I raise this matter is to try to find a way around this problem, particularly in view of the fact that the contractor who had initially picked up the children does not see a problem in diverting the route to pick them up. Given that the family were eligible for school transport when a bus service was available, is there some flexibility over this matter? It is an issue that has come up in a number of rural areas.
Parents are calling for the route to be changed to allow some type of pick-up to take place. They say the pick-up options that were given to them were not feasible but the rerouting of the bus could be a positive thing. It is very hard to contemplate how the rules can dictate that a bus travel down one road when the need for the service is along another. This is particularly relevant when one considers that the contractor does not believe there is a material difference in changing the route to collect these children. It seems that the only barrier is an administrative one. Minor changes should be able to be made to the system at local level and a flexible approach and a bit of common sense will go a long way in meeting the needs of children - not just these children but others in other areas. A detour is all that is required and it would benefit this family in gaining access to education for the children. I ask that the Minister request the school transport office to look again at the bus service in question and see how these children may be accommodated. Considering the financial pressure parents are under when it comes to funding children's education, whether in the form of contributions, the cost of uniforms or other such costs, it is not a big ask to review the scheme for these children.
The second part of this commencement matter relates to the remote area grant. As no service is available the family have been told they may be able to receive a remote area grant towards the cost of private transport arrangements. How will this be administered? Will they get it towards the end of the year? In many families one car is used for work so they would have to get a taxi to get the children to school and having to meet the costs of these upfront would be very difficult. If the family gets the remote area grant to get their children to school can it be provided as soon as possible so that there are no barriers to getting the children to school?Is there any possibility of introducing flexibility into the route to facilitate this family? Can the school transport office show flexibility in this regard given that the contractor does not see a material difference and would have no problem collecting those children, as was done when the tickets were initially sent out?
I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills for her inability to take this Commencement matter in person. School transport is a very significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills. This school year, for example, some 113,000 children, including almost 10,000 children with special educational needs, are being transported daily to schools throughout the country. The purpose of the primary school transport scheme is, having regard to available resources, to support the transport to and from school of children who reside in an location that is remote from their nearest school. Children are eligible for transport if they reside not less than 3.2 km from and are attending their nearest national school as determined by the Department and Bus Éireann, having regard to ethos and language. Bus Éireann, which operates the school transport scheme on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills, is responsible for determining eligibility for school transport and for the planning and timetabling of school transport routes.
The closing date for receipt of applications for school transport for this school year was the 25 April 2014. Bus Éireann has advised that the application for school transport for the family in question was not received until March 2015. Although the children are eligible for school transport, I understand there is no school transport service operating from the area in which these children reside. However, Bus Éireann has also confirmed that tickets were issued in error because a service was not available to the family. In accordance with terms of the scheme, families of eligible children for whom no school transport service is available may, following an application for transport within the prescribed time limits, receive a remote area grant towards the cost of private transport arrangements. If it is not possible to accommodate these children for the 2015-16 school year, the family will be eligible for a remote area grant from the commencement of that school year. This grant is calculated at a fixed daily rate and is payable annually at the end of the school year, based on the distance a family resides from their school of eligibility and on the level of school attendance. The full details of the remote area grant are available on the Department's website. It is important to emphasise that the terms of the primary school transport scheme are applied equitably on a national basis.