Tuesday, 30 June 1998
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Stanton: A sign of the strength of democracy in any society is how it looks after the voiceless. I have been asked to be a voice for 22 mildly or moderately handicapped pupils from the Youghal area of County Cork. Each day they must travel in a minibus from Youghal to Cork city to receive an education. Some of these children are picked up at 7 a.m. and returned home as late as 5.15 p.m. I am sure the Minister will agree that this is a long day even for children without special needs. The bus has a seating capacity of 16 yet it caters for 22 children each day. In some cases, they have to travel more than 40 miles every morning and evening. Unlike normal children these children believe pinching a colleague is funny. There is no escort on the bus and the driver cannot supervise them. A mother told me recently that her daughter came home from school covered in pinch marks. Another child who travels on the bus is a severe epileptic. What would happen if that child had a fit on the bus? The driver could not cope, he cannot even communicate with anyone. Because there are not enough seats on bus, the children cannot use safety belts.
I am confident the Minister and Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science will provide a larger bus with an escort and, where possible, shorten the journey time involved. I am not criticising anybody in this regard. I have been in communication with Department officials on this matter and they have been outstanding in their response. CIE is also concerned about the problem.
I know decisions on such matters are usually made during the summer. That is why I have raised this matter on the Adjournment tonight. Will the Minister provide funding for an escort on the bus? I know from a reply I received in recent weeks on a similar matter that all Members are concerned about these problems.
The windows on the bus cannot be opened because the driver is afraid someone will be hurt. The parents must balance the safety and health of their children against their education. They do not know which is the greater evil. The children cannot learn properly if they are upset when they arrive at school, but they have a right to an education under our Constitution. To quote a Phil Coulter song, “Scorn not his simplicity but rather try to love him all the more”. I am sure all  Members are at one in achieving the best possible facilities for these children. I raise the matter tonight so that by September the children will have a proper sized bus with an escort and safety harnesses. I am confident the Minister will do the best he can in this matter.
Mr. Molloy: I am aware of the concerns about transport raised by a number of parents of children with special needs who attend special schools in Cork. Officials of the Department of Education and Science have contacted Bus Éireann regarding the issues raised and have requested that the current school transport service for these children be reviewed with a view to resolving the parents' concerns.
Many of the issues raised including the provision of escorts and the current policy of having three children on the bus for every two adult seats, were considered by the School Transport Review Committee. This committee undertook a very comprehensive study of the entire school transport scheme. The committee's report, published in January 1998, was circulated to all relevant and interested parties. Its contents have given rise to very extensive debate and a number of responses have been received. These are currently under examination in the Department. Serious consideration will be given to the outcome of this debate before we make final decisions or implement changes to the school transport scheme. I await the outcome of this process with interest.
However, I assure the Deputy that children attending special schools and classes are given special consideration in the matter of transport to school. This is in recognition of the nature of the disabilities involved and the relatively dispersed locations from which many of the children concerned have to travel to school. The Department makes every effort, within available resources, to provide these pupils with a home pick up-set down service.
The Deputy will appreciate that all publicly funded schemes have to operate within tight financial constraints. Due to the high cost of some school transport services and the inconvenience to other pupils, it is not always possible to provide a home pick up-set down service. Where such a service is not available, the Department can sanction a grant in respect of private transport arrangements to the nearest pick up point.
I assure the Deputy that the matters raised by the parents of these children will be fully considered by the Department in the context of the outcome of the review of the transport service to and from Youghal currently being undertaken by Bus Éireann.
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