Criteria for School Transport Scheme must be updated – Smith

Fianna Fáil TD for Cavan-Monaghan Brendan Smith has called on the Education Minister to seriously examine the criteria for access to the School Transport Scheme ahead of the beginning of the new school year in August.

Deputy Smith again raised the issue in the Dáil, outlining a series of problems which have arisen in recent years, particularly affecting families in rural and isolated areas.

“While I appreciate that difficulties can arise with any general scheme that is dealing with rural areas, there needs to be an element of flexibility when it comes to our school transport service.  Many families chose either to move to a particular area because of family connections or because they grew up in a certain parish and want to stay there.  Those who have set up home in these areas would have been conscious of transport links to local schools, but because of recent changes in the administration of the School Transport Scheme, some students are no longer eligible for a place on their school bus”, explained Deputy Smith.

“I have also been dealing with cases where older siblings were granted a place on their school bus but younger siblings are only being granted a place if they go to a different school – this is a ridiculous situation – there has to be some flexibility in these cases.  Bus Éireann personnel, in delivering the service, should be allowed some flexibility by the Department in dealing with local issues.

“The use of Google maps in the online application process has resulted in distances being measured using roads that are not capable of carrying cars, let alone school buses.  It is in this context that I’m arguing for greater flexibility for families.  If older children have attended one school, younger ones should not be forced to go to another school to qualify for a school bus place.

“I fully appreciate that a scheme cannot be designed to suit every family but previous attendance patterns need to be taken into account. By and large, all the difficulties being encountered by these families could be ironed out in a few years.

“I am calling on Ministers Bruton and Halligan to adopt a common sense approach to this issue and to make use of the local knowledge available rather than relying solely on a centralised online process”.

School Transport Eligibility – Thursday, 1st February 2018

9. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to improve the criteria for school transport eligibility commencing for the 2018-19 school year in view of the difficulties that have arisen in recent years, particularly for some families in the more rural and isolated areas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4886/18]

Deputy Brendan Smith: Through parliamentary questions and in a Topical Issue debate, I have raised the problems that have arisen due to the change in the criteria for school transport, especially since 2014. (Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Brendan Smith: ] There have been instances in which younger children who were about to start secondary school were not able to avail of the transport services their older siblings had availed of. This has created serious difficulties for many families. This is a particular issue in more remote parts of rural Ireland. I would like further consideration to be given to the overall transport scheme. An effort should be made to ameliorate the criteria to ensure families do not encounter additional costs and difficulties in gaining the easiest possible access to their local post-primary school centres.

Deputy Richard Bruton: The Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, on whose behalf I am answering this question, has been very open with Deputies. He has met Deputies who have suggestions and concerns. I suppose I need to outline the position. It is a significant operation. It is managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. Some 115,000 children, including almost 12,000 children with special educational needs, are transported in 4,500 vehicles to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country each day. These vehicles cover approximately 100 million km each year. This service was provided at a total cost of almost €190 million in 2017. The purpose of the Department’s 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. I think the relevant distance at primary level is 3.2 km and at secondary level is 4.8 km. It is important to note that all eligible children are accommodated under the terms of the scheme.

Arising from commitments in the programme for Government, a review of the concessionary charges and rules element of the school transport scheme has been undertaken. The review, which was published in December 2016, made recommendations on the charges and the rules elements of the concessionary school transport scheme. The recommended course of action in respect of the charges for concessionary school transport was to continue with the current policy of imposing charges in respect of those in receipt of concessionary places. The Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, agreed with this recommendation on the basis that those applying for concessionary transport are making a conscious decision to do so, understand that they are not eligible for school transport and understand the implications of this choice at the time of application. The report also recommended that the number of concessionary places should be reduced in line with the rules introduced in 2012 on a phased basis. Previous plans to advance this option were put on hold, pending the completion of the review. After considering the review and discussing the matter with the cross-party working group which

was established to feed into the review, the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, decided there should be no planned programme of downsizing in the coming years, other than in line with normal operational decisions under the current scheme. The terms of the school transport scheme are applied equitably on a national basis.

Deputy Brendan Smith: I thank the Minister for his reply. The Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, has been very forthcoming and receptive to meetings with all of us. He indicated in response to a Topical Issue I raised in this Chamber that a small amount of additional money would enable him to provide a better service to many people. The Minister has quite rightly pointed out that significant resources are invested in the school transport scheme, which is particularly important in rural Ireland. We can talk about introducing various schemes with the aim of regenerating rural Ireland, but if we do not have a satisfactory school transport scheme there will be a substantial deficit in rural Ireland. Everyone who has the privilege of representing a rural constituency – my colleagues, Deputies Niall Collins and Eugene Murphy, represent constituencies that are much like my constituency – knows that many families decide to set up homes in rural parishes on the basis of access to schools and availability of transport to primary and secondary schools. I appreciate that there will always be difficulties in any overall general scheme that is based on boundaries. There needs to be some flexibility in decision-making at local level. As we all know, changes in the old catchment areas that were assigned to schools that closed in the past can mean that rural communities fall into different towns or villages. In cases in which older siblings went to certain post-primary centres, flexibility is needed to ensure younger siblings are not denied the transport services that were available to other family members. If those services are not available, it will impose an additional cost burden on families.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Every Minister of State and every Deputy has grappled with this difficulty. If we want the rules to apply nationally on an equitable and fair basis, we need to ensure they apply in every community. The rules cannot differ from one community to another. The Deputy is looking for a different rule to apply in his area because of its special circumstances. The problem is that a scheme cannot be run on that basis. We have rules and criteria relating to the distance from the school and the question of whether it is the nearest school. Children have been accommodated in circumstances in which there were places on local buses. They were always accommodated on the basis that it was not being done as of right. The Deputy is suggesting that we should create a right for such children. That would be an entirely new rule and it would have to be applied everywhere. Many better brains than my brain have tried to grapple with what the Deputy is saying, but they have not been able to move away from the sort of rules-based approach that guarantees equity to every community.

Deputy Brendan Smith: I am not suggesting the Minister set out to do so, but he has not accurately represented what I said. I said that additional costs should not be imposed on a family that has had a traditional pattern of attendance at a post-primary centre in the event that the level of school transport service that was made available to older siblings in that family is denied to a younger sibling who is about to enter secondary school. In recent years, the use of Google maps when people have been applying for school transport online has resulted in distances being measured using roads that are not capable of carrying motor cars or school transport buses. It is that context that I am talking about local flexibility and local knowledge. I fully appreciate that a scheme cannot be designed to suit every family. We should have flexibility. Past patterns of attendance should be taken into account. That washes out of the system anyway as the years go on. By and large, all the difficulties being encountered by specific families, with which all of us have dealt, will be ironed out within a

few years. I remind the Minister that many of the costs associated with the concessionary transport scheme are being met by families that are under financial pressure.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Eugene Murphy): I understand that Deputy Durkan wants to make a brief comment.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: I can empathise with Deputy Smith’s dilemma. I ask the Minister to consider the point that a little modern imagination should be used when the rules are being defined at local level. It has been shown that it is possible for this to be done without breaching the national rules. As Deputy Smith has said, a precise measurement can sometimes be achieved by satellite but, depending on the circumstances, this is sometimes not possible. I would like this to be looked at along the lines mentioned by Deputy Smith. Such an approach would be beneficial in reaching a solution that removes much of the angst in a local area without any breaching of rules.

Deputy Richard Bruton: If there is a mysterious solution that can work within the rules without changing the rules, while nonetheless achieving a different outcome, I am sure it is a wonderful scheme.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Absolutely.

Deputy Richard Bruton: I do not know what it is.

Deputy Brendan Smith: The Minister needs to give a commitment and put it to the test.

Deputy Richard Bruton: The basic problem is that we have €190 million to spend at a time when the number of concessionary pupils is growing substantially. It has doubled to 27,000 in the last four years. The core number of eligible pupils who always get their transport delivered is 77,000. As I understand it, the problem that has arisen is that some people who have been receiving concessionary transport feel that they and their siblings should have an entitlement on the basis that a pattern has been established. That is where problems arise. I can understand exactly what the Deputies are saying. I have not seen a solution that involves allocating the existing budget of €190 million in a different way that is seen to be fair to all communities and treats all communities in an equitable way. The Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, has grappled with this difficulty, as others did before him. I do not have a solution I can offer to the Deputies. The Minister of State is always open to considering suggestions and evaluating them with the officials concerned.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Eugene Murphy): We have to grapple with the question of modern information over modern technology.

Deputy Brendan Smith: Local knowledge is important. It might be better than any Internet.