Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Nicky McFadden: I thank the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for being present throughout the afternoon. The matter I raise relates to school transport. After Christmas, the cost of transporting children to school was increased by 40%. This excessive hike most affects remote and rural areas, including my constituency, and will have stark consequences for many families. The average cost of school transport varies from €90 to an exorbitant €450 for some families.
Parents feel the burden of the costs arising from sending their children to school. It is a myth that education is free. Families must pay for school uniforms, tracksuits, runners and the many extra-curricular activities in which children like to participate. Children should not be discriminated against on financial grounds. It is immoral to increase charges for school transport in one fell swoop.
More than 140,000 children avail of the school transport scheme. It is a good service and one which parents clearly wish to use. In an earlier debate today we referred to sustainability and the large number of children who travel to school by car. It is apt that the Minister is present because it is incumbent on the Government, including the Minister’s Department, to encourage the establishment of public transport networks in rural areas to bring children to school. In this context, the 40% hike in charges should be reversed.
The qualifying criteria for the school transport scheme include that pupils must live within a two mile radius of the school they attend and be aged more than four years. The former criterion is discriminatory in that buses may not pass the houses of children who live within the two-mile radius. The scheme is also provided on a first-come, first-served basis, which means it does not matter a jot if a child has a sibling at the same school because if there is no room on the bus, he or she will not be transported to school under the scheme. I ask the Minister to ensure these two anomalies are addressed.
The Government must be committed to relieving the burden of the cost of school transport on families. Every child has a constitutional right to education. However, if costs continue to be placed on parents, this right will become seriously eroded. My remarks are not politically motivated. I am aware of families in hard-pressed circumstances in my constituency. It is a fundamental right of every child to attend school and parents must be able to give their children equal opportunities, regardless of their means of whether they live in an urban or rural area.
I call for an overhaul and a review of the school transport scheme. The 40% increase must be reversed and the eligibility criteria changed. Moreover, the issue of catchment boundaries must be addressed. The Department of Education and Science has signalled that further increases may be introduced at Easter to reflect the increase in the cost of providing school transport. I ask the Minister to comment. It is clear there is no intention of reversing the recent hikes given that consideration is being given to imposing further increases on hard-pressed families.
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy John Gormley): As Senators will be aware, I will speak on a number of issues which do not come within my brief. I am, therefore, not in a position to respond or comment on questions they may ask.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it provides me with an opportunity to clarify the position regarding an increase in the school transport charges. Before I address the issue of charges, I will give Members an outline of the extent of the school transport service. School transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department of Education and Science and covering more than 82 million kilometres annually. In the region of 135,000 children, including more than 8,500 children with special needs, are transported in more than 3,800 vehicles daily to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country. This includes more than 9,000 schoolchildren who travel on scheduled bus and rail services, including those of licensed private operators.
Government investment in the scheme has increased significantly over the years. For example, in 1998, expenditure stood at slightly in excess of €51 million, while this year’s allocation is slightly in excess of €175 million. This investment has been targeted towards the development of new services, improvements in the quality of service and extensions and alterations to existing services, mainly relating to transport for children with special needs.
In 2001, improvements made to the school transport scheme included the reduction from ten eligible pupils to no fewer than seven eligible pupils the number of pupils required to establish a new primary school service; the reduction to four eligible pupils the threshold for maintaining a post-primary service, provided a minimum of six fare-paying pupils used the service; the reduction from a maximum of three hours to two and a half hours in the combined daily travelling and waiting times at post-primary level; the reduction from 4.8 km to 3.2 km in the distance requirement for the remote area grants for primary pupils; and the reduction from 4.8 km to 3.2 km in the distance requirement from the nearest route in respect of fully eligible post-primary pupils.
Further significant improvements have been made since 2005. The three-for-two seating arrangement was phased out on post-primary services by the end of December 2005 and on primary services by the end of December 2006. Bus Éireann was given approval to acquire 161 buses, including 50 new buses. In addition, more than 300 extra vehicles were hired from the private sector. All buses in the school transport scheme have been equipped with safety belts.
A major focus of the increased investment is the provision of improved services for children with special needs. It is estimated that more than 30% of the financial allocation for school transport is expended on transport services and grants for children with special needs who account for about 6% of the overall number of children carried. Costs are high in this area because it is not always possible to accommodate these children on regular school transport routes. Special transport such as minibuses, wheelchair-adapted vehicles and taxis must be provided.
There has been a substantial expansion and improvement in school transport services. The total number of vehicles in the school transport fleet increased from more than 2,400 in 1998 to more than 3,800 in 2007. In the same period, taxis were introduced as a new category of school transport, with more than 550 in service. Taxi services are primarily for special needs children for whom transport by car is often the most appropriate option. The number of minibuses in service during that period increased by almost 250, again reflecting the expansion in the special needs area. A further enhancement has been the funding provided for escorts to accompany some children with special needs. More than 1,000 escorts are now employed at a cost of more than €13 million per annum.
School transport charges have not been increased since 1998. The overall annual receipts are slightly in excess of €6.5 million which represents less than 4% of the financial allocation for school transport this year. To reflect increases in the cost of providing school transport and to alleviate pressure on these costs, revised charges are being introduced with effect from the final term of the current school year, which begins after Easter 2008. Current charges for the eligible junior cycle pupil will increase from €33 per term to €46 per term, for the eligible senior cycle pupil from €51 per term to €71 per term, for the concessionary post-primary pupil from €51 per term to €71 per term, and for the concessionary primary pupil from €26 per term to €36 per term.
A maximum family contribution of €150 per term will apply. The term charge may be waived for eligible pupils where the family is in possession of a valid medical card. The new revised charges at junior and senior cycles equate to about 82 cent and €1.27 cent per day respectively. They represent excellent value having regarding to the services being provided.
Senator Nicky McFadden: The Minister has been most gracious all afternoon. However, it is a sad indictment on the Government that there are so many Ministers of State in the areas of transport and education but none could attend the House tonight to address this important issue.
Under the conditions for primary school transport, section 1.8 concerns special conditions for the conveyance of Protestant children to national schools under Protestant management. I found it strange for the Department to categorise one type of school when there are others such as Educate Together. Perhaps the Minister would convey this to his ministerial colleague in Cabinet.
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