Wednesday, 21 September 2022
School Transport: Motion
That Seanad Éireann:
acknowledges: - the impact of the free School Transport Scheme to mitigate increased costs of living for families in Ireland;
- access for 44,000 new eligible students at primary and post-primary level to school transport;
- an increase of 16% in new school transport tickets;
- increased Government investment in school transport; notes the: - volume of applications for the School Transport Scheme;
- challenge with capacity of bus services and availability of drivers;
- impact on parents who have previously paid for school concessionary tickets;
- impact in rural areas where parents have no other public transport options;
- delay in notification to families and parents who applied earlier in the year;
- discrimination by Bus Éireann, due to their policy of excluding those who are over 70 years of age, from driving school buses; and calls on the Government to: - immediately increase funding to meet the demand for school transport, with 130,000 applications, including students, availing of concessionary tickets in previous years;
- recognise that public transport options reduces thousands of car journeys each day with a follow-on impact on mitigating costs of living and benefitting the environment through reducing air pollution and emissions;
- increase the safety of school drops and pick-ups on busy roads with additional bus services;
- support families living in regional areas by providing public school transport options;
- increase the driver age for school transport to 75, in line with recent legislation in the Department of Transport where drivers under 75 years of age no longer have to supply a medical report confirming their fitness to drive, unless they have an identified or specified illness or are required to do so by law;
- increase access to school transport options for parents and students at post-primary level, which is particularly relevant in rural areas, where there may be second-level school options in two neighbouring towns.
I thank the Minister for coming to join us this evening. She was with us this morning at the Joint Committee on Education Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and she also came to join us for our joint-Senator Commencement matter last week. The Minister has listened to the representatives in this Chamber and she has probably heard, in both Houses, about the challenges that people throughout the country are facing.
This programme is a fantastic initiative. The intent was to reduce the cost of living for many families by reducing a cost that was €650 per year down to €500 per year and, eventually, to offer it to families for free this year. Of course, we are all now aware of the challenges that have come with that. We wish to acknowledge this has been a fantastic initiative. The Minister has noted that €300 million of Government spending already has gone on this initiative that has delivered free transport for more than 124,000 mainstream students. Is there a separate category for children with special needs additional to this? However, I know the increase on last year has been massive and 44,000 new families have come on board.
The fantastic thing here is that it makes our roads safer. It makes pick-up and drop-off at schools safer, especially in rural areas where schools are on busy roads that could be in an 80 km/h zone instead of a 50 km/h zone. It has an amazing impact. However the reason we are here today and the reason Fine Gael Members have brought this motion is that we need to see solutions and additional funding put in place for the 6,000 children whose parents have applied for places, as part of the more than 130,000 applications and yet who have no possibility of access to tickets.
I have attended public meetings in the constituency in which I live for parents who are trying to get children to schools in Mountbellew, Ballygar or Ballinasloe. I believe the reason that this has an impact on rural areas is the catchment area of smaller towns. One cannot fill schools from the families that live in the immediate vicinity. Many rural schools are pulling families from a catchment area of 15 km or 20 km. That has a considerable impact on those schools. We are looking at schools with 400 or 500 students at secondary level. I have seen this as a greater challenge in post-primary schools in my own area.
In this Private Members' motion, we are calling for an increase of funding to meet the demand for school transport for those 6,000 children and students that have been left. There is a major impact on parents. We are dealing with calls from parents, who always had access, who are leaving their jobs, are dealing with immense stress and trying to deal with a number of children. I have spoken already this morning about the level of expectation but one of the real challenges about what we have seen in the past month or so is this expectation by parents when they had the ticket previously. There was a roll-over of applications and the process is such that they may only have received the notification in the first or second week of September. I know that was due to the considerable number of applications.
The Minister, however, has noted she will look at engaging with the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, on this funding. She has noted the budget that is coming out next week. Fine Gael has raised this numerous times in our grouping. I know that we are also engaging with the office of the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, to engage with the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath. It is urgent and vital that we find a solution. This is a fantastic initiative that has brought benefit to so many but we have these families that have been left outside of the programme.
I acknowledge that the Minister has the school transport review programme that, it is hoped, will come to a conclusion by the end of this year. I am sure there will be many new proposals in the programme but we need solutions now, not next year. Families are struggling right now. They are going day to day without knowing what will happen in the week or two ahead. I take on board the criteria the Minister has mentioned but for many of these families, they have only discovered this definition of concessionary or eligible now. They have always had access to these tickets.
In respect of this challenge around the definitions of eligibility and concessionary, we are coming across schools where they are at maximum capacity in first year, for example. What are the opportunities for the P3 schools?We are delving into the nitty-gritty detail of eligibility criteria for families who are really struggling. The intent of the Bill and that of the Minister, and the legacy she wishes this Bill to have, is that it will be groundbreaking in terms of taking cars off the road, safe routes to school for children and reducing costs, thereby making a major impact to families' income and household expenditure for the year that is in it with the energy crisis we are facing. There is a legacy with this initiative the Minister brought forward. We are asking that we find solutions for the remaining applications that are still outstanding.
I thank the Minister. It is great to have her in the Chamber. I formally second the motion. This is an important debate we are having about the school transportation scheme, which is a unique scheme that helps many families throughout the State in getting their children to school. It is part of their daily routine and structure. It is a part of how communities operate in rural Ireland. It is important we have an appropriate scheme that suits the needs of people.
We took a major step forward in recent months by changing the criteria to make this free, which was a really positive step. The big issue for us is that when those criteria were changed and the date extended, thousands of people subsequently looked to be on the scheme, the knock-on effect of which in my part of the world has been that children who traditionally had taken the school bus no longer do so. I know of one family with four children, two of whom take the school bus while two do not. That is a significant issue for that family. They are trying to work around the scenario whereby they drop two children to the school and the other two children are dropped to the school bus stop. These are significant challenges for these people. These are working people who are trying to manage everything in life. They are trying to manage their school and work timetables, and whatever time they have left for a social life is limited, to say the very least. How can we put a scheme in place that helps everyone who is affected?
I am aware a review process is taking place, and it is appropriate that it started in February 2021. However, that review is an ongoing process and we need to see what will come from it in due course. The issue that most affected this scheme in my part of the world was the changing of the date. By moving that date forward, thousands of children were placed on the scheme, and because of that, children who traditionally would have got the bus because they fitted the criteria of having enough seats on the bus now no longer get that bus. We need to find a solution to this. Places like Ballinhassig, Rossmore, Minane Bridge, Nohoval, Dunderrow, Kilbrittain, Ballinspittle, and Newcestown are grossly affected by that. How do we find a solution for children who are three weeks into the school term and are another four weeks away from the midterm break?
I have a few cases I want to talk about. Special school education is very important. I am aware of a child who has been granted school transport, but because there is no escort available, three weeks later, the family is still driving their child 70 km every day. A principal emailed me last night to inform me she has a similar situation in her school and that child has not come to school yet, three weeks into the school term. I mentioned another case of two children getting the bus and two not getting the bus. The big issue for us is when we will get the budget required to make sure we leave no child behind.
The Minister mentioned she hopes to have negotiations with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in regard to the budget. Will the Minister clarify whether that is for this or the next academic year? I want to know when the budget she is talking about will become applicable. Will that budget cover the cohort of children I have referred to? I mentioned the two special education cases about which I contacted the Minister's office this afternoon. She might look into those issues. It is significant that there is a child who has not gone to school yet and another who is, unfortunately, waiting for an escort. They are significant issues for those families, to say the least.
The big issue is to try to find a solution in the current new term. We are three weeks in with five weeks to midterm. We need to have a timeline for when there will be a solution. If there is not going to be a solution, we need to be honest in that and tell the children and families because they need to have structure in their life. Whether it is grandparents, neighbours, or hiring a school bus privately, they need to know what the solution will be. We have all received correspondence from Bus Éireann saying it is not engaging anymore regarding finding additional transportation. My worry is that if Bus Éireann is not going to engage anymore to find that additional transportation, are we effectively saying the 6,000 children who, unfortunately, did not fit the criteria this year and do not have a place on the school bus, will not be accommodated? If that is the case, could we make sure to have a plan in place for the children who are affected? We need to know exactly what is happening. That clarity would be helpful. If it can be honestly said there will be no option or no hope, that needs to be stated.
To follow on from Senator Lombard, the reason we brought this matter to the attention of the House and sought a Commencement debate is to get clarity. I am a team player when it comes to my party and this Government. I am a team player because of the way I was brought up, the sports I have played and everything else. I will go out and defend to the bloody hilt, but this is one example of a policy with good intentions where we are seeing the unintended consequences of a decision we as a Government have made. It is not good enough to say, not to put a spin on it, that we have put more people on busses and there has been an increase in this and that. We need to be honest, as Senator Lombard said, and tell people we have left seven to eight thousand children off buses who had seats for the past number of years.
I have a list of 60 children, and I am working day and night on it. Bus Éireann representatives have told me it is nothing to do with them. The Department put out a call for free transport and, as a result, they are swamped. I have been told I may go to the Department and try to get the people there to figure it out. That is what Bus Éireann at local level and our Oireachtas Bus Éireann contacts are saying to us. Once that was said to us, we have now had to bring it to this House through Commencement debates, through this Private Members' motion, and by raising it with Ministers - the whole lot. We are at an absolute loss here. We need to be honest and, instead of touting what a nice policy it was to give all these children free transport, say we accept what has happened, we are looking at fixing it, we realise we have created this situation, we will fix it by getting extra funding and we want to fix it in the coming weeks. It is not good enough for these parents and children for us to talk about reviews that may happen in a couple of years or the concessionary tickets. The issue about concessionary tickets, and I said this during the Commencement debate, is that we cannot abide by the same rules for concessionary tickets in previous years when the floodgates have been opened to every child in the country to have free transport. It cannot be done. We changed the rules and, as a result, we cannot keep the same rules. I am not coming into this House to be negative. I hope other Senators present who will have seen me over the past two years in this House will realise I am not the type of politician who comes into this Chamber to give a kick because it is easy so do that.
I have time and I would like to finish. The number is not 78,000 because only 38,000 children in the country getting this school transport, not triple that.
I am coming into the House not because I am frustrated but because I am upset. We all have personal stories, and no doubt the Minister has the same issue in her constituency of Kerry, of parents who are going through serious issues, be they health or financial issues or whatever. The last thing these parents need is to be worrying about a school bus ticket. The last thing they need is to ask themselves how they are going to get to Dublin for work, get up at 6 a.m. and get their child in and out of school. The stories I hear in my part of the world are tough to listen to. I have never felt more at a loss as a politician in being able to do something, because in every other year where this has happened, we have been able to sort it out with the local bus station or Bus Éireann.It takes a bit of time but it gets done. It has now washed their hands of this entire issue. Bus Éireann is now putting this back on the Minister and the Department. That is what it saying to us as Members of the Oireachtas. It is telling us to speak to the Department or to the Minister as they are the only ones who can fix it and that it cannot. How do we fix it? What is the plan? It is about getting a clear timeline and a clear definition, for which Senator Lombard asked and saying that we want to fix this within the next four or five weeks. If we can do that, great but clarity should be brought. If we cannot get that clarity, I want to look those parents in the eye, be honest with them and tell them we are not going to be able to fix it this year. I will take that and if it means I do not get elected to the Dáil the next time or lose votes, that is grand but I am going to look these parents in the eye, be straight up with them and tell them we are either going to fix it or not. What I will not do is continue with political lines saying we are looking at it and looking at reviews and research. I refuse to do that. I want to be honest with the people of Dundalk and the rest of County Louth, which is what I intend to do. By bringing forward this motion today, I seek that clarity in order that I can go back to these parents, look them in the eye and tell them we are either going to sort this out with a timeline or we are not going to be able to do it on this occasion. That is what I want to get out of this evening's debate.
I thank the Senators for giving me the opportunity to address the matters raised in this Private Members' motion on School Transport. Before I address the specific issues raised, I will provide an outline of the extent of the school transport scheme. The school transport scheme was established in 1968. It was created to facilitate access to primary and post-primary education for children, who because of where they reside, might otherwise have difficulty in attending school regularly. I am deeply conscious of the immense service that the scheme provides for families around the country. The scheme is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. In the 2021-22 school year, more than 105,000 children, including more than 15,500 children with special educational needs, were transported on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country.
To date in the current school year, there are approximately 124,000 children availing of transport on the mainstream primary and post-primary school transport schemes and approximately 17,3000 children availing of transport on the school transport scheme for children with special educational needs such that a total of 141,300 children travel to school on school transport scheme services. Under the terms of the primary and post-primary school transport schemes, which is an important factor, children are eligible for transport at primary level where they reside not less than 3.2 km from and are attending their nearest national school and at post-primary level where they reside not less than 4.8 km from and are attending their nearest post primary school or education centre as determined by the Department-Bus Éireann having regard to ethos and language.
In addition, pending completion of the outcome of the full review of the school transport scheme, temporary alleviation measures at post-primary level will be continued for the 2022-23 school year. Under these measures, transport will be provided for post-primary pupils who are eligible for transport to their nearest school and are attending their second nearest school and who applied by 29 April and registered for a ticket by 29 July. It is important to emphasise that there are eligibility criteria regarding access to the school transport system. That has always been the way, it was the way in previous years and it is the way currently. The eligibility criteria have not changed.
Under the terms of the school transport scheme for children with special educational needs, children are eligible for transport where they have special educational needs arising from a diagnosed disability and are attending the nearest recognised mainstream school, special class or special school that is or can be resourced to meet their special educational needs. Eligibility is determined following consultation with the National Council for Special Education through its network of special educational needs organisers.
As the Senators will be aware, as an emergency cost of living measure, the Government announced funding for the waiving of school transport scheme fees for the 2022-23 school year as part of a wider package of cost of living measures. This created a saving of up to €650 for parents at a time when measures were announced to reduce the cost to families for school transport services. These measures were in addition to the reductions in the family cap that were announced by the Government in February 2022 to mitigate the cost of living and remove the cost of ticket charges for the 2022-23 school year.
School transport ticket registration for the 2022-23 school year closed on 29 July, by which time almost 130,000 applications and registrations were received for mainstream school transport. The online account management system, known as the family portal, which had been closed since registrations shut on 29 July, reopened on 25 August. Where applications have been processed, the reopening of the portal will enable account holders to check the status of their application. While the reopening of the portal also facilitates a late application process, it is very important for such families to note that the application deadline for 2022-23 was 29 April 2022 and that the deadline to confirm registration for tickets was 29 July 2022. Any application completed after this date is deemed a "late application" and, therefore, many school transport services are already operating at full capacity. Late applications will only be assessed after all "on time" applications have been processed and there is no guarantee of places for late applicants.
Already, more than 124,000 tickets for the mainstream scheme alone have been issued to applicants for the 2022-23 school year. At the start of the last school year, approximately 103,600 children were carried on mainstream school transport services, so in the region of 20,400 additional mainstream places already have been created. The temporary waiving of fees has led to an unprecedented expansion of the scheme with many more eligible and concessionary applicants receiving tickets than ever before. There has been an increase in tickets allocated across all counties with an increase of 18% in the number of tickets issued to eligible pupils compared to the start of the 2021-22 school year and an increase of one third in the number of tickets issued to concessionary pupils compared to the start of the 2021-22 school year. That is an important factor. There is actually an increase of one third in the number who have qualified for concessionary places on buses this year. The funding required to waive the fee for families for the current school year and the funding to provide the additional services required to cater for the increased demand for school bus tickets is being provided by my Department. Already this expansion has cost an additional €40 million above last year's costings. Notwithstanding this, I acknowledge that the huge increase in applications has led to frustration over delays in issuing and accessing tickets in some instances. I can assure Members that Bus Éireann will continue to work intensively in all regions to process applications and to issue tickets.
For this year and in line with normal practice, all eligible children who completed the application and ticket registration process on time for the 2022-23 school year will be accommodated on school transport services where such services are in operation. This notwithstanding, I am conscious that there are families who are not eligible for the scheme but who have depended on the service in previous years. I am addressing this issue with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in the context of the budget.
My Department also continues to progress a review of the school transport scheme, which includes an examination the current scheme and how it currently operates, its broader effectiveness and sustainability and that it might adequately support the provision of services to students and their families. The review encompasses the school transport scheme for children with special educational needs. The review of the primary and post-primary school transport schemes will examine each element of the schemes and include eligibility criteria, trends, costs, cost drivers and overall effectiveness in meeting the objectives of the schemes. The review will also examine the potential for integration of different strands of the scheme and a more co-ordinated approach with other Departments that also use or provide transport services.
Wider considerations relating to the operation of the scheme are taking place in the current phase of the review. As part of the current phase of the review, the technical working group has undertaken extensive consultation, including running a public survey for parents, guardians and students who use the service and those who do not use the service but who would like to. These engagements have yielded extensive data for consideration. The group has also consulted with a broad array of stakeholders, including schools, special education interest groups, industry representatives and other Departments.
One of the findings of the stakeholder engagement process is that the school transport scheme is highly valued by families and that families, particularly those living in rural Ireland, rely heavily on the scheme to get their children to school where there is a lack of public transport alternatives.Another key finding is that the scheme is viewed as a key factor in supporting climate change measures, and there was support for increasing capacity on school transport which in turn will reduce car journeys and congestion at schools and in towns. While work on the review was impacted somewhat by the challenges of the pandemic and the impact of the current conflict in Ukraine, it is anticipated that the final phases will be completed shortly with recommendations on the future operation of the Department's school transport scheme. The steering group will continue to report to me on an interim basis as the review progresses.
With regard to the retirement age of school bus drivers, it is Bus Éireann company policy that the normal retirement age for all Bus Éireann staff is currently 66 years. However, Bus Éireann part-time school bus drivers and drivers nominated by private operators who operate services as part of the school transport scheme may continue to perform in the role, provided they hold the requisite license and satisfy an annual medical examination, until they retire at 70 years of age. This policy and these criteria are applied to all drivers who provide school transport services on behalf of Bus Éireann equally. The age limit for school bus drivers was increased to 70 years a number of years ago. While Bus Éireann has informed the Department there is no plan to increase the age limit further at this time, the matter will continue to be kept under review. I can assure the Senators that my officials will continue to engage with Bus Éireann as they currently do with regard to all aspects of the operation of the school transport scheme. In addition, quarterly strategic and monthly operational meetings will continue to be held throughout the year to discuss operational and strategic matters including financial matters, fleet and other resource requirements, scheme delivery and other such matters that arise to ensure continued and effective operation of this very significant scheme.
I would like again to take the opportunity to point out that the announcement was made as part of a cost-of-living provision for families. It is a considerable saving for families, up to €650 for many. It was announced on the basis of the criteria that currently exist and that did not change. The criteria that exist are that a primary school pupil lives 3.2 km from his or her school or that a post-primary school student lives 4.8 km from his or her nearest or next nearest school. All of those who met the eligibility criteria have been provided for. More than 124,000 of them have been provided for this year as opposed to 103,000 last year. That is a significant increase of more than 20% additional capacity and it is also free of charge. There is an issue with concessionary tickets for those who receive seats on the basis of availability once those who are eligible have been provided for. This has not changed this year. Those who are concessionaries, provided there is capacity, have received seats on buses this year and there has been a one third increase in concessionary tickets this year.
There have been issues with the school bus transport system. I recognise that and I am the first Minister to instigate a root-and-branch review of the entire school bus transport system which specifically will address eligibility criteria. Previous Ministers who served in my Department did not do so in past years. I think it is important to remember that.
Equally in terms of addressing the issues for this cohort of children with concessionary tickets who are not eligible to be on the bus under the present scheme but have depended on it previously, I have opened discussions with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, in the context of the budget to see if there is scope to ensure that some financial provision can be made to alleviate the situation for families that find themselves in that specific situation, having previously been awarded concessionary tickets and having capacity available on a bus. Those discussions are ongoing.
I would say to Senators that these are individuals and I do not take from the difficulty and challenge that it provides for families. It is for that reason that I instigated an entire review of the process, recognising that there are other ways and better ways of providing the service. That review has involved engagement with more than 8,000 parents, 2,000 students, bus providers, bus operators and our European counterparts to look at best practice in other jurisdictions. The review is nearing completion. In the short term, this measure was introduced to alleviate cost-of-living pressure on families. I am in ongoing discussions with the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, in respect of the specific cohort who currently find themselves outside the loop.
I want to refer also to a question around special education. I appreciate the Senator raising that issue. Those who are availing of the school transport scheme from a special education point of view do so and have consistently done so free of charge. There may well be challenges in terms of recruiting staff. I want to be fair and say to the Senator that this challenge in recruiting staff is not unique to the transport system at this time. We are seeing similar issues in business and hospitality. We are working through that with Bus Éireann. Children with special educational needs are being provided for free of charge as was the case previously. In fact there has been an increase in transport provision for children with special educational needs, due largely to the large number of additional classes that we have in place and everything else.
I thank the Senators for their ongoing interest and commitment in this area. I thank them for the issues they have highlighted which are of great interest across the floor of the House. I assure them that we are continuing to work on it. We have had no choice but to abide by the eligibility criteria at this point. There will be another opportunity to look at it in its broadest sense when the review is completed. In the short term, for those who were outside the loop, who were not eligible this year and were concessionaries previously, where there is capacity, I am engaged with the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, to see what scope there is in the upcoming budget.
I thank the Minister for her very comprehensive report on school transport. The free school transport initiative was announced with great bells and whistles. We expected great things. Whenever anything is announced as a free service, I suppose the Minister has got to prepare for that and what it brings. I am wondering what action the Minister took. Did she acquire more buses for it? Did she acquire more drivers? The Minister knew that more people would be applying for the service, particularly in rural areas. It seems to have been a severe let-down. Were more staff appointed to the school transport section in Bus Éireann here in Dublin? They do not seem to be able to answer the phone. They are not returning any emails at this time. Inquiries are coming in from all over the country.
This is not just a Meath issue, all over the country councillors are having issues with transportation. The population increase with 52,000 more Ukrainians has obviously caused more problems for school transport provision as well. Were any provisions made for that? It just does not seem to have worked this year. I do not know why but this year seems to have been worse than any other year that I have ever dealt with. I know of a number of children who did get a bus pass, then it was taken off them. There are seats on the bus but they cannot get on the bus as a result. I know children who got tickets and they never even applied for them. They would have applied in the first two years of their education, did not get it and then this year all of a sudden they got tickets in the post. There is serious mismanagement in the service.
The Minister did say she was going to be accommodating all the children who completed the application and ticket registration process on time this year and they will be accommodated on school services where they are in operation. What happens if they are in operation and those buses are full? Will the Minister put on extra buses in that area? Is that going to be a possibility?
I note the Minister did not mention the remote area grant today. That grant is available, although a lot of people may not even know it is, for people who are living outside the distances of the school. Is there any way the Minister could increase the payment rate on that grant? Fuel has gone up. The daily rate is currently €1.30 for children living between 3.2 km and 4.7 km from the school. If someone is 9.7 km away they can get €5.10 a day. Is there any way the Minister can look at that grant and increase the daily rates, if possible? That might take a little bit of pressure off parents as well. That grant is paid annually. Is there any way it could be paid each term? In light of the cost-of-living crisis, is there any way these applications could be submitted after each of the three school terms? That might also alleviate the pressure on parents somewhat.
Somebody spoke earlier about transport for children with special needs. That is a serious issue. There is one particular child in my town of Duleek and the bus driver comes from Monaghan to bring that child half a mile up the road. It does not make sense to make such a trip twice a day. We need to look at why that is happening. There are local facilities and buses. I do not know what the criteria are, but we need to look at that because it is an obvious waste of money. There is no reason a bus driver from County Meath- or even a bus driver in County Louth, which borders Meath - should not bring that child to a school in the county.
The Minister faces challenges. I am glad she is going to look after those children who have previously had places on buses and who have applied again. Is the Minister of the view that the 6,000 students who did not meet the criteria last year will get places on buses this year? That is what I really want to know. Is there any way that the staff who run the school transport system on behalf of Bus Éireann can be increased in some way? Can more manpower be given to that particular service, specifically for the months of July, August and September, when it is under severe pressure? It is unfair that the relevant section is not being properly manned in order to allow it to deliver a better service for parents, and for local and national representatives. Ultimately, when one has the knowledge, one can communicate back to the individuals. When one cannot get answers, however, people despair.
I wish the Minister well. There has been a bit of mayhem this year, but I have no doubt that she will get the extra money required from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform next year and that the service will improve then.
The Minister is very welcome. We had a long debate on school transport this morning at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. We certainly appreciate the Minister giving of her time to debate this very important issue, which is relevant and important to so many families, students and communities right across the country. It is important that we welcome both the motion and the opportunity to talk about the issues and challenges that exist.
It is also important that we talk about school transport as a vital service. School transport benefits tens of thousands of students and families right around the country, particularly when we think about the 124,000 pupils availing of the service this year, which is a 21% increase on the number who availed of it last year. That is significant. Obviously, we have to think about those 6,000 students who applied for places and did not get them in order to see how we can manage to ensure that they are able to get to school in a timely fashion, and with State support if at all possible.
The scheme is important to everybody, but especially people in rural areas where there are not public transport options or alternatives. In a way, the school transport place is as vital as a school place. Organising a family is the same as running a small business in the context of ensuring proper timetabling, pickups and drop-offs. It is an incredible help when a bus collects and drops off a student and is of great importance.
I acknowledge all of the work the Minister has done in ensuring that cost-of-living measures were put in place in the context of the cost of going back to school. In this House and the Lower House we have acknowledged the cost of going back to school for students. That cost is contemplated within the €2.4 billion package the Government has put in place. Included in that package are measures to increase the back-to-school clothing allowance and provide the extra school meals. Also, an additional €40 million that has been provided for school transport. This has made a significant difference for many families. For some, the saving is €650 a year or €12.50 per week. That is significant and has to be acknowledged. Many parents have acknowledged it to me and to others.
It must also be recognised that when the State provides public and school transport, the number of car journeys taken each day decreases. That leads to improvements both in traffic volumes and the level of carbon emissions. School transport has a very important role to play in that regard. We need significantly more of this. I live in a rural constituency and the Minister represents such a constituency. We know the pressure points that exist at school drop-off and pickup points. Those pressure points give rise to all of the traffic jams in our villages and towns. Indeed, our local authorities have had to spend significant amounts of money on traffic calming measures. If we had a situation where we had a demand-led service that responded to the needs that exist - disregarding the criteria that are there at the moment, which, I appreciate, will be part of the whole reform and review that I will mention later - that would be very important.
There has been a significant increase in the number of tickets allocated across all of the counties. We cannot forget that. The Minister’s commitment that Bus Éireann will continue to process applications and issue tickets, as soon as extra buses and drivers are sourced and become available to provide transport, is welcome. There have been very bad delays in the issuing of tickets. It is very regrettable that we are having this debate on 21 September and schools have been back almost a month. All of these issues should be dealt with in July and August. There should be certainty about transport for our children. I hear about this matter from families and public representatives, not just in Kildare but also in other parts of the country. Families have to make very difficult decisions. People are cutting back on the number of hours they work, certain parents are talking about giving up their jobs or buying second cars in order to be able to ensure that their children get to school. We must do something in this regard.
The Minister has given a commitment in respect of those who are eligible. We also need a commitment regarding those who have concessionary tickets, who had them before and in circumstances where some children within families have them and others do not. That matter needs to be addressed.
On planning, those who registered before 29 April should certainly have received their tickets in the first tranche. We should not have a situation where some of those people have not received tickets and those who were late applicants have received them. I appreciate that there always have to be late applications because of family moves, etc. I am concerned about what certainly seems to be a lack of planning. I would be interested in knowing a little more about the planning that was done in conjunction with Bus Éireann.
On the review of the school transport service, I thank the Minister for ensuring that this has been undertaken. We certainly look forward to it being completed. We will need to address all of the issues around eligibility and concessionary tickets. This should be demand-led. Every child who needs a place should get one. We have to address issues like ethos because, at the moment, Educate Together schools are being left out of the process. We have situations where parents, if they make a choice to send a child to a co-educational school as opposed to a single-sex school, do not have that choice in the context of transport.
The bottom line is that a commitment has been made regarding eligible schools. We need to have a similar commitment in respect of concessionary tickets. Bus Éireann needs to carry out a review in respect of buses that are not full passing by certain stops and regarding tickets that were issued but that were not requested in the first place. The latter is adding to the problem. I thank the Minister for taking the time to listen to us.
I move amendment No. 1:
After the last paragraph, to insert the following paragraphs:
“recognises that: - each year the School Transport Scheme is over-subscribed, with the State turning thousands of children away from this public transport option annually;
- the Minister for Education failed to increase capacity this year alongside the announcement of the elimination of fares, resulting in an unprecedented number
of applications and thousands of children not getting a seat on their local school bus; notes: - the failure of the Government to harness this demand results in thousands of extra private car journeys to and from school each day which is totally at odds with our climate ambitions;
- that by expanding the School Transport Scheme, we can cut transport emissions, reduce dangerous traffic congestion outside schools, while also providing parents and guardians with a convenient method of transport for their children; and calls for: - an additional 10,000 extra places to be funded on the School Transport Scheme in 2023;
- capital funding to be provided for the purchase of new school buses, noting the age and quality of the current fleet of school transport buses.”
It is bizarre that something that was seen as such a good news story for many parents has resulted in members of the Government parties having to introduce a Private Members' motion. The potential benefits of a free school transport scheme are plain to see. It is good for the climate, for air pollution, for schools and for families. It is good in the context of the safety of pickup and drop-off points outside schools and it is good for parents because they have a convenient way of getting their children to school. The term "management" has been used quite a bit during this debate. If it was managed correctly, free school transport could be an excellent weapon in the fight against the cost-of-living and climate crises. We know it is short journeys, in particular school drop offs, that add a significant amount to our carbon emissions. They are the types of journeys we are trying to make non-essential for parents so they have alternatives and do not have to drive their children to school.
As we have heard, management is important. The way the Government has ruled out the scheme has been a disaster. The Minister announced free seats without making sure that seats were available in the first place. That has only led to chaos and more stress for families. This was supposed to be a good news story for families to help ease their burden and all it has done is given a headache and extra stress to families.
A phrase used in conversations about public transport and cycle infrastructure is, "If you build it, they will come". If we put in place the infrastructure and remove the barriers people will use the service. Anyone who has a cursory understanding of economics will tell us that reducing costs will lead to an increase in demand. That does not seem to have been heeded.
There are points in the Fine Gael motion that seem to be trying to shift the blame away from the Minister and pin it on Bus Éireann. We know from a parliamentary reply that the Government liaised with Bus Éireann before announcing the decision, but it was only made clear to Bus Éireann that the scheme would be free 30 minutes before the plan was formally announced. The Minister has to accept responsibility for that and stop looking for others to pin the blame on.
Families across the country are outraged. Those expecting to see savings of €500 now look set to be heaped with additional costs as they try to find alternatives. People who have been using the service for years have been left without a place, while other parents have lost out due to the unfair lottery nature of the scheme.
The figures quoted in the Fine Gael motion raised a few eyebrows. There is nothing technically wrong with them, as far as I can tell, but they paint a remarkably rosy picture of the situation. The motion mentioned 44,000 new eligible students. I would like to know how many of those new students are actually replacing students who graduated and how many are additional seats. I figures I have show that 124,000 school transport places are being provided for the current 2022-23 academic year, while only 121,400 were provided for the past academic year. That is an increase of only 2,600 places, or 2%. Clearly, that is not up to meeting the reality of the demand.
The failure of the Government to harness the demand for buses has done damage to the wider climate movement. When it comes to climate action, one of the key asks across the spectrum is free public transport, but the complete bungling of the free school transport proposal has set that back. Sinn Féin supports the goal of free public transport and is committed to increasing the capacity of the system to make sure it is done right. We cannot just roll things out overnight if we do not have the bus spaces and capacity to deliver the service.
The school bus debacle could have been avoided. Obviously it is too late for that now, but we do not see the Government taking the steps required to address the problem. Additional capacity is the only thing that can solve this and it is still not being sought for concessionary pupils who secured pupils tickets for this school year. Sinn Féin has consistently called on the Government to provide an additional 10,000 places to be funded on the school transport system in 2023 and for capital funding to be provided for the purpose of new school buses.
That is why we have brought forward an amendment to the motion calling for those additional 10,000 extra places to be funded on the school transport scheme and capital funding to be put in place to provide for the purchase of new school buses, noting the age and quality of the current fleet of school transport buses. I encourage all those who spoke passionately during this debate about the hardship parents are going through due to the failure to access bus spaces for their children to support the Sinn Féin amendment.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I thank the Fine Gael team for putting forward this important motion and using Private Members' time to discuss this issue. I and a number of colleagues debated this problem in a Commencement matter with the Minister. I welcome the chance to discuss this issue again. This problem is still massive in my area of south Kildare, as mentioned by other colleagues. Unfortunately, things are not getting much better for those who find themselves in this situation.
I watched a piece on "Prime Time" last night and became even more worried about possible solutions than I was when I left this House after the Commencement debate last week. I am not sure if the Minister's Department is hearing about the problems families, rather than individuals, are facing on a day-to-day basis. Families are the ones who have problems and are upset by this. Families are not thinking of giving up their jobs; rather they have given up their jobs in order to get their children to school. That is that reality in Kildare and other counties.
When the Minister sat down with her Department to discuss this, did nobody think of those who had concessionary tickets and the fact that under the eligibility criteria for the scheme they would lose out? Did nobody in the Department ask what those families were going to do? That is the bottom line. They are the people who are suffering. They are ringing me and other colleagues in Kildare week in and week out. They are crying on the phone to me because they cannot get a ticket and there is no solution for them.
We have to determine what we are going to do in the next couple of weeks. Things cannot happen next year because the 6,000, 7,000 or 8,000 pupils mentioned by colleagues in the Fine Gael team during this debate are still without tickets. They are still trying to figure out how they are going to get their children to school and they want to know whether the Minister or the Department have called Bus Éireann and determined how many vacancies are on the buses. The bus operators I have spoken to over the past number of days and weeks have told me they have not be contacted by anybody in the Department or Bus Éireann to find out whether there is spare capacity on their buses. We are now weeks into this crisis. That is what is happening.
I have received calls from parents who have informed me that they are aware of students who have received tickets but are not using the bus, as other colleagues have said. I am informed that a number of students who are no longer attending secondary school have received tickets. Despite being in third level education, they received tickets for second level students. Over the weekend, I was contacted by a school teacher who told me of two pupils who are no longer in her school. She contacted me because a mother was crying with her as she would not be able to bring her children to school. The teacher called me to ask whether I could point out during the debate that there are two vacancies on a bus in Kildare.
This is something that has been replicated time and again in the phonecalls I have received. I could give the Minister personal stories as I did on a previous occasion. I have raised with the Department an issue she asked me to raise during the previous debate and I am sure she will revert to me on that. The bottom line is that those who had tickets for three, four, five or six years now find their children on the side of the road. As I said during the Commencement debate, they are following buses with empty seats.
I refer to the issue of 70-year-olds raised by the Minister. She mentioned But Éireann is keeping the matter under review. That is not good enough. The Minister for Transport extended the scheme to 75-year-olds this year, including ex-military personnel who can drive buses. There are plenty of them out there. This is about capacity and ensuring that the 6,000, 7,000 or 8,000 parents affected can get their children to school. As I said, phonecalls need to be made and I ask the Minister to please start making them.
I want to raise the issue of the school transport scheme for children with special educational needs. It is a good scheme when it works. However, I know of families who were told on 15 August this year that they were eligible for the school transport scheme, yet five weeks on 12 children with special educational needs in new ASD classes in Dublin 15 do not have school transport.There have been repeated calls to Bus Éireann but people have heard nothing back. These are children coming from Cabra, Navan Road, Finglas and Balbriggan. In some cases, the distance is significant and they already have enough challenges to be dealing with without the uncertainty of having to worry about how they are going to get to school. Thankfully, as of today, Bus Éireann has finally confirmed that those routes have been approved for a four-seater and a seven-seater, which is great, but the school principal now has to start the process of recruiting the escorts, which could take any length of time.
As has been said, the system is very inefficient. It is hard enough for families to access ASD classes without then having to face another hurdle of trying to get access to their entitlement to the school transport scheme. The review is welcome but it cannot come quickly enough. We need to see radical change to ensure we do not have such delays again.
I welcome the Minister. I apologise for being late to the debate as I was at another meeting when the Minister was speaking.
The reality is this whole issue is about children. It is not about concessionary or non-concessionary tickets but about children getting to school. We are in a situation where the country is at full employment. We need to be at full employment and we need people to fill these jobs in our economy, yet families are left in a situation where one parent has to give up a job. I know of a family on a route to Moyne Community School where the father goes to the school at 6:30 a.m. and the child's mother looks after other kids who come from 7 a.m. to allow other parents to go to work. Another family with three children who have been on a bus over the past five years now have no transport to school. The Minister earlier this year visited Ballymahon Vocational School and Mercy Convent, two large progressive schools in the county that are now left in a situation where up to 14 kids have no transport to school, although they had that previously. As both parents may be working, it leaves people in a very difficult situation.
There are ways around it but, for some reason, the school transport office does not want to deal with it. A point was made by Senator Wall in regard to the over-70s. My family has a bus company. My uncle is over 70. His son can drive the bus to Moyne Community School, which is 13 miles away, but my uncle cannot drive it. He has a licence, is medically fit, and could bring a school group from the school to Cork or Belfast in the same bus, but he cannot drive the 13 miles down to the school. That does not make sense. I know it is the unions within Bus Éireann that are not allowing it but it does not make sense that somebody cannot drive 13 miles to a school when that same bus can pick up those kids and bring them to a basketball match or football match in the national stadium or wherever. It is ludicrous, to be honest, and it needs to be looked at.
I know of a situation where a company has larger buses. The seats have been filled out for 53 but the company has a 57-seater and a 59-seater bus. The school transport office will not let the company employ the larger bus, which could pick up the four kids on one of the routes that is short. It is not listening, although I put forward that proposal. That is an answer to one situation in one school. It is just a question of bringing a bigger bus, not a second bus, but it is not being looked at.
Somebody from the Department of Education needs to look at all of these individual situations. There are answers to this issue. At the root of it are the children. We are reliant on these children getting a good education to come into our workforce and replace all of us in our jobs in the years to come. We need to put the basics in place and allow them to get to school when there are answers to the problem, although it needs a bit of forward thinking. I ask the Minister to take on board that simple point about the over-70s which has been mentioned. I am sorry if the Minister dealt with this in her opening statement and I missed it. It does not make sense. I am giving that practical idea of somebody who is just over 70, medically fit, has a licence and can drive the whole way to Belfast in the same bus but cannot drive down to the school. As I said, it does not make sense. Where there are larger buses available that could pick up the shortfall in numbers, which would be at a very minimal extra cost, if any, that needs to be looked at. We cannot have a situation where people are forced to give up their jobs or work shorter hours.
I know is a difficult one for the Minister. It was an excellent proposal to fund those who had been paying for transport over the years and it was targeted at them. However, we need to think outside the box and come up with a solution to make sure those 6,000 kids have transport to school.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House to discuss this. She has been discussing it from dawn to dusk, given that early this morning she was addressing this issue before the education committee. This is something that comes up as an issue at the end of every August. Some of the criticism of the Minister was rather unfair. It was interesting that at the education committee some members were saying the fact changes were made to the plan means this was not properly planned or thought out and the Minister was not taking responsibility. I had to look back on debates in 2012 and 2013, when there were changes to the school transport scheme and the same accusations were being made against the then Labour Party Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn. Any Minister who tries to grapple with this seems to face particular challenges.
What has to be acknowledged is that, first, the Minister has initiated a review of a scheme that has been in place and largely unchanged, bar some changes about a decade ago, since the 1960s. Senator Boylan is right and I support the idea that we can we provide 10,000 extra places next year, but it has to be acknowledged the Minister has provided nearly 20,000 additional places this year. Yes, there are problems with the scheme, but it needs to be acknowledged there has been a significant increase in the number of places being provided.
As colleagues have pointed out, it does not matter if we provided places for nearly every child. If it is your son or daughter or you are the student who does not have a place on the bus, then you are naturally going to feel under pressure. We all know, as the Minister does, the pressures individual families are facing this year and the difficulties they have, particularly where there was a legitimate expectation of a ticket. These are the difficult stories where kids who, up to transition year or fifth year, had the concessionary ticket all of the time and the parents worked on the basis they would apply early and get it, and then they suddenly find they have lost out. We will see the details when the review comes in but I certainly think that where somebody has had a concessionary ticket for a number of years, a legitimate expectation has built up and, at the very least, they have to be given priority. It is hugely disruptive when that legitimate expectation has been built up.
I agree with colleagues about the position of drivers aged over 70. We had the discussion with regard to pensions. That is life and many people want to work for longer. As Senator Carrigy said, this is not about driving an Expressway bus from Tralee to Dublin. This is about small bus routes, which would suit many retired or semi-retired bus drivers. I entirely understand that, for safety reasons, appropriate checks have to be carried out every year. Surely, however, if a driver is able to pass all of the necessary tests to be able to drive the bus, then he or she could be allowed to do it, particularly as, in many of these cases, it is on a part-time basis and on a small route basis.
There is a shortage of bus drivers in the country. We also need to look at making bus driving an attractive career path and we need to encourage people to look at taking it up. It is a difficult job but it is a rewarding career path. Until we have automated vehicles, we are going to be relying on good bus drivers. Part of our campaign has to be around encouraging people into that area.
We all know the good environmental reasons and the reasons around ensuring people can go to work without having to worry about their kids getting to school.We want to see a situation whereby effectively, anybody who wants to use the school bus can do so. This is important, even in terms of preventing traffic idling outside schools and the resultant fumes. I am sure every one of us in this House has also dealt with complaints about traffic jams around schools or inappropriate parking outside school premises so if we can provide a regular bus service, we can address all of that.
When the review is published, and I hope the Minister will expedite the publication of the report, the Minister should come into this House to debate the findings so that we can move to a situation in 2023 where we do not face the same challenges that we face every August. We all know of particular hardship cases and in the short term, I ask the Minister to continue to work closely with Bus Éireann to find ways of getting pupils onto buses.
The final point I would make is one that I raised this morning with the Minister. Part of the challenge has been the introduction, for good reason, of a free school transport scheme. There are people who signed up for the free scheme simply because it was free. Perhaps a small, token fee should have been considered because it has meant that buses are travelling to schools with empty seats. I understand that if all those places have been allocated then the seats cannot be taken up. We need to consider charging a small, token fee to ensure there is intent to use an allocated place. Obviously there are ways to support those who are disadvantaged but we have a problem with people signing up for a service that they intend to use rarely, if ever.
As public representatives, we all know that there are issues with school transportation every August and September. Indeed, one could set one's clock by it but this year the representations I have received in my offices in Waterford city and Dungarvan have been beyond anything I have experienced previously. Some of this could have been avoided. It is not just the odd case, here and there. Families from every corner of Waterford have been in contact with me, from Clonea to Rathgormuck, Clashmore, Butlerstown, Kilmacthomas, Ballymacarbry, Knockanore, Aglish, to name a few.
I could keep going. I could say Villierstown, Modelligo and Colligan as well. People from all those areas have been in contact.
The fundamental error that was made here was reopening applications after the announcement was made that school transport would be free, which resulted in many students who had availed of concessionary tickets for many years being unable to avail of them. These were families that were happy to pay for school transport. That said, I appreciate and totally understand that the Minister made that decision in good faith to try to reduce the cost on families. Nobody is questioning that but the difficulty has arisen from that decision.
On 5 September, I wrote to the Minister regarding a particular issue that kept coming up in my constituency office. Unfortunately, I have only received an acknowledgement to date so I do not know whether the Department of Education is investigating the issue which relates to Yahoo email accounts. Nine families in my constituency with children who are eligible for school transport made their applications on time but they never received any follow-up communication from Bus Éireann to confirm their request for bus tickets. Normally they would pay their fee and request their tickets but as that coincided with the announcement of free transport, these families thought, understandably, that they did not have to do anything further. On realising that there was an issue, they made contact with Bus Éireann. The company acknowledged that there was a problem with Yahoo email accounts. This was also confirmed to my staff. However, the company has subsequently said that it is the parents' responsibility to have valid email accounts but these families do have valid email accounts. It is not their fault that there was some error on Bus Éireann's side that resulted in emails not landing into their accounts. I am certain that there are nine such families, at least, who have been affected by this issue. They were advised to apply when the portal reopened but of course when they did, they were told that all places had been allocated and it was not possible to cater for them. It is unconscionable that students who are eligible for school transport are being negatively impacted through no fault of their own. Provision has to be made urgently for those families. If it means putting on additional buses or additional capacity on certain routes, that has to be done. This problem was not of their making. These parents applied on time, in good faith and their children are eligible for school transport but are being negatively impacted.
Transport operators that have buses and additional capacity available have been in contact with me to say that Bus Éireann is not engaging with them locally. I ask the Minister to put a fund in place urgently to ensure that we can cater for as many students as possible. All of us, including the Minister, know the issues out there.
I welcome the Minister to the House. It is refreshing that a senior Cabinet Minister would come to the House for a Private Member's debate and I thank her for that. It is a very positive indication of her concern, notwithstanding the magnificent change she made to the school transport scheme at the outset. I welcome the review and plead with her to expedite it. In fairness, she has said in a number of interviews and during a Commencement matter debate last week in this House that it is important that the review is expedited. The Minister has a very hands-on approach.
In her speech the Minister eloquently referred to the number of new places but there are issues, as she knows quite well. Senator Cummins raised an issue that the Minister can address by encouraging Bus Éireann to engage proactively on the ground. It is the agent, the voice and the face of school transport. I compliment Senator Dolan on the motion before the House and on her work on this issue. Bus Éireann is the representative body. It is a bit like the HSE and the Department of Health. We get the flak but Bus Éireann is the body administering the scheme. It is important that the Minister speaks to the company directly.
The other point that has been made about age cohorts is important and change is needed in that regard. It would be great if the Minister could address that. The Minister is right to say that the school bus service is valued by those in rural Ireland who need and require such a service. The service allows our education system to function and flourish. As a schoolteacher myself, I understand the importance of school transport. Indeed, for those students with special needs or disabilities, our school transport system is pivotal to their empowerment, their living and their flourishing. We should not forget those very important students today.
I thank the Minister for being here. I commend the motion to the House and thank Senator Dolan for submitting it.
The Minister is very welcome to the House to discuss this very important issue. I am aware that she has been addressing it all day so I thank her for her attention and for the opportunity to discuss the school transport scheme. I am glad that a review of the criteria is taking place but I call on the Minister to confirm tonight that included in that review is the criterion of ethos. The school transport scheme does not allow children who are of no religious persuasion to avail of their nearest non-denominational school. As transport currently is not provided to the nearest non-denominational school, children of no religious denomination are forced to attend their nearest school which could have a religious ethos. Under the terms of the post-primary school transport scheme, children are eligible for transport where they reside not less than 4.8 km away and are attending their nearest post-primary school, having regard to ethos and language. Ethos, for the purposes of the scheme, refers to minority religions. The 2022 census form offered "No religion" as the first option for the very first time. In 2016, it was the last option on the list for those declaring religion.In 2016 10% of people ticked the "No religion" box. We do not yet have the figures from the 2022 census but we can be safe in the knowledge that it will be higher than 10%. This is a particular issue in Skerries in north County Dublin. Approximately 13 families who are of no religion send their children to their nearest Educate Together secondary school, which is Bremore Educate Together in the town of Balbriggan. They have been told they are not eligible for the school transport scheme because it is not their nearest secondary school. Their nearest secondary school has a Christian ethos and these families fundamentally do not want to send their children to a school with a Christian ethos. These families are being discriminated against because they have no religion. This is completely unacceptable in a republic. The criteria for the school transport scheme are not fit for purpose in a modern Ireland. I am very glad a review is taking place. Will the Minister please confirm the ethos element of the criteria is under review?
Compounding the problem for families in Skerries who are sending their children to Bremore Educate Together secondary school is the fact that Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann service times from Skerries to Balbriggan are unsuitable for the start time of the educate together secondary school. There was a bus on the timetable that somewhat suited the families but it has been axed. The families sending their children to that educate together secondary school have no public transport option. They are forced to use private transport. This is completely unsustainable and discriminatory. In her response will the Minister specifically refer to the ethos criterion of the scheme and whether it is included in the review?
I thank the Minister for attending in person in the Chamber. I compliment Senator Dolan and her colleagues for tabling the motion. It is fair to say that school transport issues have always been a staple of political life in August and September. It has been at a much higher scale this year. This is a consequence of the positive changes made to reduce costs for families, which are to be welcomed. I commend the Minister and the Government on the decision. In areas such as Moycullen, which is outside Galway city, students travel to attend secondary school. Those in Moycullen predominantly go to Galway, with some going to Spiddal, Colaiste Cholmcille in Inverin or St. Paul's in Oughterard. They have to travel outside their own community. I am sure there are other examples around the country where people have no choice but to travel.
In recent years an issue has been the closest school rule. Changes have been made with regard to a second school, which have been positive for students who are close to a certain school but go to another school. The changes made over recent years have been welcome.
I acknowledge and commend my local Bus Éireann inspector on engaging on issues and being available to answer calls on cases. This might not be the same in all regions of the country. The local inspector in my area is able to provide information on what Bus Éireann might be able to offer as an alternative, providing bigger buses where possible or using a bus that goes to another school that is close by. There are solutions.
Driver age is a matter for Bus Éireann but there is an anomaly. As my colleague, Senator Carrigy, said, bus drivers over the age of 70 are able to drive to Belfast with pupils from a school but they cannot bring the same pupils from their own homes to school. This is an anomaly and if it could be looked at it would provide a quick solution. Even if it were for this year, pending the results of the review, it would provide a quick solution to the issue. We need to move to a situation whereby a bus is available for all students free of charge for whatever school they want to go to, within reason. The Minister has gone a long way towards this. I hope that over the coming weeks she will get the resources to ensure this issue is solved for all of the students and parents involved.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House and being here for the full debate. I acknowledge this. The area the Minister is from is quite similar to mine. Kerry is quite similar to Tipperary in many political and rural ways. This has been by far the biggest issue for the past month or month and a half. For the parents of the 6,000 or 7,000 children throughout the country who have no place on a bus it does not look like the issue will be solved any time soon. This is the most frustrating part. They do not know. They are on WhatsApp groups and they are all speaking about their own stories.
I have heard of very difficult situations that people are in. I know of a teacher in one school whose child goes to another school. That teacher has to give up time at work to bring the child to school. These are families that do not have other problems such as somebody being sick or other challenges. Their children were able to get on a school bus for the past number of years with no problem. They paid for it and there was no problem. Now, because it is free, everyone is going on the bus. These families would happily pay to get their children back on the bus so they could go back to their normal lives when they were working, the bus picked up the children and they knew they would get to school and home safely.
We now have situations whereby a child is on a bus for one journey of the ten journeys of the week so for nine of those journeys there is an empty seat. These buses drive past children who are waiting to go to school. This is what is infuriating. We can speak about how there are now 124,000 children on school buses, which is an increase on the number last year but it was expected. The number of people who applied was unprecedented. This was flagged with us very quickly when the announcement was made. The announcement was made with a very well-intended purpose, which was to reduce costs for people at a time when costs are very high. This is why the back-to-school allowance was increased. These measures were taken to help people.
School transport was very clearly going to be a problem. The parents I speak to in Ballingarry, Drangan, Cloneen and Killenaule are going into their fourth week of waiting for clarity. Can we give them this clarity? The Minister speaks about having conversations with the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, on extra funding. Will this extra funding be for this year's students who are waiting to get on a bus? It is infuriating for them. People's lives have been turned upside down by a simple thing that can be solved. They look at buses going past with empty seats but they cannot get their children them. I ask that we give these people the clarity they deserve. The measure was introduced for a well-intended purpose but it has caused unintended consequences for many people who did not expect them. Through no fault of their own they are at their wits' end driving to and from school with their children every day. I ask that we get answers as quickly as possible and get these children on the bus.
I join in the welcome to the Minister, Deputy Foley. I thank her for staying for the entire debate. Senator Ahearn summed up the whole issue very well. I acknowledge, as have others, that the intention was genuine, good and egalitarian. The Minister wants to do the right thing in a cost-of-living crisis. All of this is fine but, as was well put by my colleague, we have some unintended consequences.In essence, my situation is no different from that of anyone else. I have an office in Cavan town, which is used by our councillors for their representations. There are also direct walk-in representations and phone calls. It has come up a lot. The difficulty is that there is now a bus route in a country area with only about two or three children left who are either passed by the bus, as the last speaker said, or there is no place on the bus for them because of the extra numbers. It is a particularly difficult issue to deal with because if two, three or four children on that bus route are adversely affected by the situation and are caught, how do you resolve it? We cannot reasonably put another bus on that route. We cannot have two really expensive buses on that route. Do we get a larger bus or use a car? What do we do? I hope the Minister will get the funding to deal with it. Small numbers and isolated routes constitute a very tricky issue to deal with in rural Ireland. It is not a simple matter to deal with. I wish the Minister well with it and I hope she gets the money and gets the issue resolved.
I am finished effectively. My experience in my office is similar to that of everyone else. It is a very difficult issue if they are working and cannot go. It is the usual things a family deals with. Perhaps somebody in the house is ill and they cannot leave.
Can I outline an option? It depends on the Minister's schedule. We can suspend. The Minister has to go to a vote. Perhaps people want to make a one-minute contribution while the Minister is here. I do not know what the Minister's diary is after this. Does she have another engagement?