Seanad debates

Thursday, 10 November 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Transport

10:30 am

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome our guests in the Public Gallery. I am not sure which school they are from but we will find out and mention it on the record. They are very welcome. We are pleased to have them here to see the engagement in the Seanad.

The Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, is welcome back to the Chamber.

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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The Minister of State is very welcome. I raised the issue of the remote area grant last September when the Minister, Deputy Foley, was in the Chamber. The grant is available, although many people may not know about it, to people who live more than a certain distances from their local school. I asked for an increase in the payment rate on the grant. The cost of fuel has gone up. The current daily rate is €1.30 for children living between 3.2 km and 4.7 km from the school and for those living 9.7 km from the school, the rate is €5.10 per day. Has there been progress on the increasing of these daily rates? This would take a bit of pressure off parents. The 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 pressure on parents somewhat.

Now, however, possibly as a result of my advertising the grant, I have been hearing from people who are applying for it but finding it almost impossible to get. It is important to note that an application for school transport must be made before a remote area grant may be considered. Sign-up on the Bus Éireann website for school transport is not user-friendly at all. The web page where one applies for school transport has no sign-up button but, rather, just a wall of text and, hidden in the middle of that, there is a line stating that one has to make an account to apply. Why make it so difficult? There should just be a form there or a big button. Bus Éireann should change this immediately. Bus Éireann operates the school transport scheme on behalf of the Department. No one can reach the company or the section of the Department that is responsible for administering the scheme. I looked into it online yesterday. It is not clear how or where to apply. One would be forgiven for thinking the Department does not want anyone availing of this grant and is hiding it away.

How many children are in receipt of the grant? How many applications are made, granted and refused each year? Can we get some transparency around this? Parents across the country are reporting that they do not know where to start applying. They cannot find the form and they have been given the runaround. Is the Department running the scheme or not? I hope I can get clarity from the Minister of State with regard to the administration of the grant and how it will be improved.

As regards the school transport scheme, it has been disappointing this year and particularly challenging in light of the increased numbers seeking school transport. In the past month, 30 Ukrainian children arrived in Stamullen and Gormanston. I cannot find a school for them. When I find them a school, I will need to find school transport for them. Children who are currently in the school in Gormanston cannot get school transport. There are challenges there. School transport is an issue. Certainly in the case of children who have just come here from Ukraine, it is important that we are able to facilitate them.

I am particularly interested in hearing from the Minster of State in respect of the remote area grant.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator for raising this matter. Before I address the specific issue raised, I will provide an outline of the extent of the school transport service. The school transport scheme is a significant operation, managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department of Education. In the previous school year, 121,400 children, including 15,500 with special educational needs, were transported daily to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country. The cost of the scheme in 2021 was €289 million. The school transport scheme is an important service for families and children. The purpose of the scheme is, having regard to available resources, to support the transport to and from school of children who reside remote from their nearest school.

In July 2022, 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. School transport ticket registration for the 2022-23 school year closed on 29 July, by which time almost 130,000 applications had been received for mainstream school transport. This figure includes 44,299 new applications, as well as rollovers from the previous school year. Already, more than 127,800 tickets have been issued for the 2022-23 school year. At the start of the previous school year, there were approximately 103,600 children carried on mainstream school transport services, so already 24,000 additional places have been created.

The normal eligibility criteria of the scheme still apply and tickets are allocated in line with these criteria. Pupils at primary level are eligible where they live no less than 3.2 km from and are attending their nearest primary school. At post-primary level, students who live no less than 4.8 km from and are attending their nearest post-primary school are deemed eligible. Any pupils who do not meet these criteria are deemed not eligible and are otherwise known as concessionary applicants. They are allocated a ticket based on the availability of a seat when all eligible children have been catered for. In line with normal practice, all eligible children who completed the application and ticket registration process in time for this school year will be accommodated on school transport services where such services are in operation.

As part of the budgetary process, additional funding has been approved for the scheme which will allow officials in the Department, in consultation with Bus Éireann, to consider and evaluate where temporary additional capacity may be available. The initial focus will be on families who applied on time and previously held concessionary tickets. However, it is important to stress that this is subject to capacity considerations. Constraints in sourcing vehicles and drivers in certain areas of the country may mean that it may take a number of weeks to explore solutions for additional capacity.

The specific issues raised by the Senator relate to remote area grants where school transport is not available. Families who wish to avail of school transport and have their eligibility status assessed should apply online before the closing date to Bus Éireann. Bus Éireann, which operates the school transport scheme on behalf of the Department, will then contact all applicants regarding their eligibility for school transport. The families must complete the application process before the closing date. Where there is no transport service available for eligible children, Bus Éireann will forward the applicants' details to the Department and officials from the school transport section will contact families directly regarding the remote area grant. It is important to note that an application for school transport must be made before any grant can be considered for an eligible student. Grants are based on distance from home to school and range between €1.30 per day and the maximum daily allowance payable of €5.10 per family.

As the Senator may be aware, the Department has commenced a review of the school transport scheme. The review is being conducted with a view to examining the current scheme, its broader effectiveness and sustainability and to ensure it serves students and their families adequately. I spoke to an official in the Department this morning. She hopes the review will be concluded by the end of the year and made it clear that the allocations and per day rates are part of the review. They are under consideration at the moment.

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State. My question was really about the remote area grant. The response the Minister of State was provided by the school transport section spent three minutes on the school transport scheme but my question was really about the remote area grant. He told me about the 121,000 people who have got school transport. There are 130,000 applications, so, therefore there are 9,000 applicants who have not received it. Have those 9,000 people been sent a remote area grant scheme application form so that they might be able to avail of the grant? It is not user-friendly. Even though people have applied for the school transport scheme, it is not user-friendly to let them know that if they did not get it, they can apply for the remote area grant. If the Department could update the school transport section and the relevant website, that would be most helpful to parents.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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To clarify, 24,000 additional places have been created this year. I will take the issues raised by the Senator in respect of the website back to the Department. I raised with the official today the visibility of the application process for the remote area grant, so that is now on the radar, but I will raise it with the Minister as well. The Senator's suggestion in respect of staging the payment over a couple of allocations during the year sounds like a good one as well and I will take it back to the Minister.