Wednesday, 11 December 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
School Transport Eligibility
I welcome the Minister of State. I put down this Commencement matter on the school transportation scheme because it is an issue on which I have been very active the last six or eight months. The school transportation scheme is, in many ways, flawed from head to toe. We need a total review of it and on how we are going to deliver school transportation for the children of rural Ireland who avail of the scheme.
Last August there was a change to ensure we could get new bus routes in certain key locations in my part of the world. In my parish, a new 52 seater bus was brought on board to cover those who were left behind. Ballineen and Enniskeane were affected as well.
There are serious issues with the school transportation scheme, and I will list some of them for the Minister of State. The real issue about the school transportation scheme is the nearest school principle. There are issues regarding nearest school principle. If one is going to the nearest school, then one is entitled to get school transportation, but if one is going to the second nearest school, one has to wait and see if one is entitled to it. That does not work in rural Ireland. In Ballineen, the nearest school could be within 300 m, or it could be fourth nearest school, because of the location of places like Ballineen and Enniskeane. That does not work.
There are feeder schools to the secondary schools that do not fall into the category of getting school transportation. How can a feeder school to a secondary school not be eligible for school transportation? People, in particular first-time rounders, who have children in sixth class in primary school do not realise that the date for applying for school transportation is 26 April. Their child is in primary school but they must apply four months before September. People do not realise that is the date, and they are missing it. Not enough work has been done by Bus Éireann to advertise the date.
I refer to the unique situation of a person repeating his or her leaving certificate. He or she must have the foresight to know he or she is going to do a bad leaving certificate and to apply on 26 April. A person could be taking the bus for six years but because he or she did not do a good leaving certificate, he or she has to go through the stress of being taken to school by a parent.
This scheme needs to be reviewed from head to toe. An awful lot of money is being spent on this scheme which is vital scheme for rural Ireland. It is about ensuring people who live in rural Ireland have the opportunity to work and to have their children educated.
I spent six and a half months on the Joint Committee on Climate Action, and one of the issues that came up during debates was that one school bus is the equivalent of two cars regarding carbon output. Rather than parents taking their children to school, a 50 seater bus would reduce the carbon output by something in the region of 96%.
Much needs to be done on this scheme which is broken from head to toe. It has been added onto over the years, and nobody has taken a real look at it. The time for change to the scheme has come. Bus Éireann needs to be more flexible. Something needs to be done to the feeder school issue and clarity is needed regarding the second school principle. Last year we tweaked the second school principle, so people had the opportunity to get school buses. We have no clarity regarding that for this year. Although it has not been announced yet, I assume 29 April, the last Friday in April, will be the cut-off date for the school transportation scheme. That has to be advertised. People, in particular first-time rounders, need to know what happens but I do not think they do.
We need a head to toe review of the scheme. Hundreds of millions of euro are being spent, but for a very small amount of money and with a small number of tweaks, we could provide the school transportation scheme that rural Ireland, but in particular the parents who are doing their utmost to educate their children, deserve.
I know of a mother who drives from Ballineen to Bandon and then goes to work in Macroom. She does that every day because one of her children cannot get on the school bus. The other child is on the school bus. One won the lotto, but the other did not. In a scenario where there are spaces left over, there is a lottery, so one child might get a space while the other might not. It is totally illogical.
If one set out to make a scheme unworkable, this is it. The amount of work required to sort this is going to be immense, but the conversation has to start now. I do not want to be in the situation I was in last August when 118 parents contacted my office about school transportation. These were hardworking decent people who wanted the best for their children but who also wanted to go to work. We solved most of the issues but we did not solve them all. I was really sorry for the ones we did not sort. We need to start this conversation now, because if we do not, 200 parents will contact me next August and that is not fair on them.
On behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Halligan, I thank the Senator for raising this matter.
Before I address the specific issues raised, I shall provide a quick outline of the extent of the school transport service. School transport, as the Minister of State has already outlined, is a very significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills. In the 2018-19 school year, over 117,500 children, including over 13,000 children with special educational needs, were transported in over 5,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country covering over 100 million km at a cost of over €200 million in 2018.
The purpose of the school transport scheme is, having regard to available resources, to support the transport to and from school of children who reside remote from their nearest school. Children are generally eligible for school transport if they satisfy the distance criteria and are attending their nearest school, as determined by the Department or Bus Éireann, having regard to ethos and language.
All children who are eligible for school transport and completed the application process on time have been accommodated on school transport services for the current 2019-20 school year. Children who are not eligible for school transport may apply for transport on a concessionary basis and are facilitated, where spare seats exist, after eligible children have been accommodated. Where the number of ineligible children exceeds the number of spare seats available, Bus Éireann allocates tickets using an agreed selection process. We use a lottery system, as already outlined by Senator Lombard.
Growth in numbers of children availing of special educational needs transport is a notable development in recent years. The cost of special educational needs transport has grown from €58 million in 2012 to over €106 million in 2018. The school transport provision for children with special educational needs now accounts for over 50% of the total cost of the scheme while catering for some 12% of the overall number of children transported.
Recently the Minister for Education and Skills sanctioned an additional €1 million for the school transport budget to allow for temporary alleviation measures to temporarily increase the capacity for concessionary seats on the post-primary scheme for the current school year. The cost of these measures has been given to those areas where there was a significant concentration of post-primary children who had paid on time for the 2019-20 school year and are attending their second closest school.
In October 2019, the Minister announced a review of the school transport scheme with a view to ensuring that funds are being spent in the most effective way to meet the objectives of the scheme. The terms of reference and scope of the review are being considered by officials in the Department right now. It is expected that a cross-departmental steering group led by the Department of Education and Skills will be established shortly to oversee the review. I fully expect that Members of the Oireachtas and, indeed, members of the public will be allowed to make submissions to that review.
On behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, I thank the Senator for raising this matter and for affording me the opportunity to provide an outline of the extent of the school transport scheme and the upcoming review.
I welcome the response, which is important. Earlier I spoke about the frustration felt by parents. This issue is about good hardworking people doing so much. The amount of work that is required is going to be immense in many ways but it is important that the review happens and that people have an opportunity to make submissions.