Tuesday, 11 October 2005
Dáil Eireann Debate
2. Ms O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Science if she will establish a commission to review catchment boundaries for school transport in view of the huge demographic changes that have taken place since these boundaries were put in place in the 1960s; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [28018/05]
3. Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Education and Science if, in the wake of recent comments at the Joint Committee on Education and Science, she will carry out a full review of school bus catchment areas and boundaries; if she will make a decision in terms of recommendations made as a result of such a review in view of the fact that no full review has been made since 1969 and that children are still without seats in several parts of the country following the welcome ending of the three for two scheme; the effects the short timeframe has had on thousands of parents in planning school transport for their children in August and early September 2005; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [27754/05]
Catchment boundaries have their origins in the establishment of free post-primary education in the late 1960s and were determined following consultation with local educational interests. For planning purposes, the country was divided into geographic districts, each with several primary schools feeding into a post-primary centre with one or more post-primary schools. The intention was and continues to be that these defined districts facilitate the orderly planning of school provision and accommodation needs. They also facilitate the provision of a national school transport service, enabling children from remote areas to access their nearest schools.
I do not propose to hold a general country-wide review of catchment boundaries. A review of specific catchment boundaries in particular areas can, however, be appropriate in certain circumstances. A number of these has been carried out over the years where, for example, a new post-primary school is established in an area where previously there was none or where a sole provider school closes due to declining enrolment.
The area development planning initiative, involving an extensive consultative process carried out by the commission on school accommodation, will also inform future revisions to catchment areas. An area development plan takes account of demographic changes and projects future enrolments for existing schools and new schools if required. Catchment boundary changes will be made where the implementation of the recommendations in an area development plan requires such adjustments.
Catchment boundaries have provided and continue to provide a very useful tool in facilitating the orderly planning of school provision and accommodation needs and the operation of the national school transport service.
With regard to the phasing out of three for two seating arrangements, Bus Éireann has indicated that only 31 out of a total of 2,500 post-primary services are now operating on the basis of a seating capacity in excess of one for one. This represents rapid progress and the end of term deadline for full implementation should be met. At primary level, I expect that one for one seating arrangements will be in place by December 2006.
Ms O’Sullivan: I am disappointed the Minister of State has refused to carry out a full catchment boundary review in view of the fact that boundaries were established in the 1960s and that significant demographic changes have subsequently taken place. There is neither rhyme nor reason to many of the catchment boundaries currently in existence. In terms of population, some areas have grown enormously since the 1960s but there have been no changes to their catchment boundaries. The entire system is a monument to ad hoc provisions. I ask her to review her decision on the matter.
I have raised the specific concerns of Pallaskenry, County Limerick on a number of occasions. I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for organising a meeting between parents and representatives of the Department last Friday. Was any decision made subsequent to the meeting, which lasted for approximately three hours? What is the status of the letter sent by the Department in 2001 that explained that the status quo would remain and the bus would continue to come from the city side until the catchment boundaries were changed?
I have before me a list of feeder schools to a Limerick city school which comprises a greater number of schools from without the city’s catchment boundary than from within. Feeder schools are located in Counties Clare, Tipperary and Limerick. A statement was made that the school bus is being discontinued because there are sufficient places within the city. I put it to the Minister of State that many of these places are being taken by children who live outside the city’s catchment boundary. I ask that the situation in Pallaskenry be reviewed.
Mr. Gogarty: I concur with the comments of my colleague, Deputy O’Sullivan, with regard to Pallaskenry. I will not go over old ground because of time constraints. I hope that following the meeting this matter will be resolved. I ask the Minister and Minister of State to make themselves aware of other situations throughout the country. While it appears nothing will be done for this year, the possibility of doing something next year must be examined.
The Minister said that where school closures arise they will be examined and dealt with. In 1969, men were sent to the moon with less computer power than I have in my phone, and there has been much tinkering with computers since then. The Minister said that while she would not necessarily make any changes on the basis of new school populations or people wanting more choice, she did acknowledge the possibility that she could make changes following a full scale review. Will the Minister carry out a review with a view to making her own decision on it? There is no harm in carrying out a review, the first since 1969. She is in Government and can decide to disregard any report but such a review is crucial at this stage.
Miss de Valera: To answer Deputy Gogarty’s questions first, I am a little confused by his questions because I made it clear in the Joint Committee on Education and Science the week before last that I would not initiate a general review of the catchment boundaries. People may say that such boundaries were introduced in the 1960s when times were very different and that a change was needed but we must examine the reasons for their implementation.
The boundaries were implemented because of the introduction of a very different education system where post-primary education was available to all but it also refers very much today in that these boundaries are in place to ensure there is a proper strategic approach to planning and accommodation throughout the country when it comes to school buildings. In terms of school transport, therefore, people may believe that changes in boundaries might alleviate some problems that may exist but many more Members would complain of difficulties with people not being eligible under the new system. Obviously it would have consequences for any change but the main reason for having the boundaries in the first place is to ensure proper school planning and accommodation.
We must ensure also that the boundaries protect declining schools, so to speak, as well as rural schools because if poaching were allowed to occur in those situations, we would see the decline of certain schools. The boundaries exist to protect those schools in both rural and urban areas. The question of teachers also arises. These boundaries are in place to ensure we have the right teachers and the correct structures for education. That is the reason I do not propose to change the boundaries system at present.
Deputy O’Sullivan referred to demographic changes but as I explained to her in the joint committee, certain changes have been made with regard to the demographics and all the other issues to allow for the provision of new schools or the closure of others in exceptional circumstances. That provision is not ad hoc. If we did not have such a system we would descend into an ad hoc situation and neither I nor the Deputy would want that.
With regard to the question of Pallaskenry, I had the opportunity of answering that question last year and also the week before last on the Adjournment. I have also answered many questions that were put to me by Deputy O’Sullivan and others in the committee and my decision on that matter stands. There is no reason to extend the debate on that matter because my decision is made.
Ms O’Sullivan: To return to the question of ad hoc provision, I will give an example from my area. Many of the children coming from areas outside the Limerick city catchment have bus tickets. The same must be true in other parts of the country. The transport liaison officer in each county makes these decisions in which many parents see no logic. They do not know why one child receives a ticket and another does not.
Mr. Gogarty: The Department of Education and Science ruined the summer holidays of many parents and children. Parents in Limerick, Galway, Sligo and other parts of the country now have to drive a child in a car, and chase a bus.
The Minister of State says there is no need to change the system that exists to protect a certain status quo. Between the 1970s and 1990s new education models were introduced, including educate together, Gaelscoileanna, and community colleges, which changed the educational system. Rather than stick plasters here and there, the Minister of State needs to take a holistic approach to the system, then based on the finance available decide who will and will not suffer. The system is patently unfair and does not take cognisance of the society in which we live.
Miss de Valera: I disagree with the Deputy’s views. He used the word “panic”. There was certainly unnecessary reaction but I do not blame the parents for that. Much of it was politically whipped up because these false rumours——
Miss de Valera: This happens every year because it takes time for the eligible pupils to apply for, and receive, their tickets. There are eligible pupils who have yet to apply for their tickets. Until we know the exact position, the catchment areas, including the catchment boundary pupils, cannot be facilitated because they are concessionary pupils. The eligible pupils must be facilitated first.
The only difference between this year and last year is that we accommodated a situation and very quickly improved the seating arrangements on buses in order to have a one for one arrangement. No matter how people view that change, everyone in this House believes it was a priority. It seems to surprise Members on the other side of the House that this is being done quickly.
The catchment boundaries are not ad hoc. They exist to ensure there is a strategic approach to school accommodation and the provision of teachers. It is most important that we take that into account. There have been certain changes on catchment boundaries, as I have explained, with regard to new schools or where schools have closed.
There was an interesting example of this in County Wicklow. In September 2003 Kilcoole opened as a sole provider for the area of Kilcoole-Newtownmountkennedy and environs. The level of accommodation provided was based on the projected enrolment, and primary schools within revised catchment areas. Discussions took place with other post-primary schools in determining the provision. It was decided to continue to provide transport only to pupils who had already commenced post-primary education.
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