I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Ciarán Cannon. I will draw to his attention the comments made by the Deputy and will respond as best I can with the information available to me.
A number of changes to the school transport scheme were introduced in the 2011 budget by the previous Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government. The changes regarding the primary school transport scheme derive from recommendations in the value for money report of the scheme and relate to the introduction of charges, changes to the so-called closed school rule and changes to the minimum numbers required to establish or maintain a service. I will now give more detailed information on these changes.
With effect from the 2011-2012 school year, a transport fee of €50 per annum will be introduced for eligible primary school pupils, with a maximum family charge of €110 applying for eligible primary pupils only. Eligible children who hold a valid medical card are exempt from paying the charge. As a consequence of the introduction of charges, parents now have to apply directly to Bus Éireann, which operates the school transport scheme on behalf of the Department, for school transport for their children.
The closed school rule for school transport eligibility purposes was introduced in the 1960s in circumstances where a primary school was closed and amalgamated with another. No time limit has been applied to the closed school or central school rule. In some cases, the primary school in question was closed up to 40 years ago and amalgamated with another school. In some instances, a newer school has subsequently been built in the general area of the original closed school. Under the current primary school transport scheme, however, the transport provided is to the amalgamated school only, even in circumstances where there is actually a newer school closer to the pupil's home. A pupil in these circumstances is not eligible for free transport to the newer school. The closed school rule can operate to distort parental decisions and result in pupils travelling longer distances than necessary or than were they to go to the nearest school.
The specific changes announced with regard to the closed school rule are as follows. From the commencement of the 2011-2012 school year, the distance criterion will be applied to all pupils attending primary schools and the exemption under the closed school rule will cease. This means that children who reside less than 3.2 km or 2 miles from the school of attendance and who are availing of free transport to that school under the closed school rule will no longer be eligible for school transport. From the 2012-2013 school year, eligibility based on the closed school rule and the central school rule will cease for all new children entering primary schools. It is important, however, to emphasise that existing primary pupils availing of transport under the closed school rule will retain transport eligibility for the duration of their schooling, provided the requisite distance is met. Moreover, given that the change in question will not come into being until September 2012, all new pupils enrolling this September will be eligible under the closed school rule.
To put this issue fully into context, drawing on the report of the value for money review of the school transport scheme, the following facts are relevant. First, in the 2009-2010 school year, transport services under the closed school rule operated to more than 800 primary schools, with almost 26,000 children — 54.4% of mainstream tickets issued — deemed eligible for school transport under this rule. Second, according to sample studies undertaken for the value for money review estimates applied nationally, in the majority of cases where such transport has been provided, pupils in fact attend their nearest primary school. While the application of the closed school rule is referred to in these cases, it does not mean they are not travelling to their nearest school. Third, the transport of such a significant number of children, some of whom would not qualify for transport on the basis of the distance criterion alone, involves a cost.
With regard to the change to school transport eligibility for pupils entering primary school in September 2012, where eligibility will be by reference to the nearest school, available statistics, based on sampling undertaken as part of the value for money review, indicate that the impact of this element of the change will be limited as the majority of pupils categorised under the closed school rule are in fact attending their nearest school. Therefore, the majority of families will not be affected by this change.
The Department has requested Bus Éireann to conduct a detailed analysis of the on the ground impact for individual schools and the rural communities they serve. This analysis will be based on the most up-to-date information available on current usage patterns and the information is expected to be available this summer. The likely effects of this change can then be carefully examined well in advance of the 2012 implementation date.
With regard to the minimum numbers required to establish or maintain a service, the changes mean that services under the minimum numbers, either single services or those which are part of double tripping arrangements, will be discontinued. A pick-up density of pupils in a distinct locality on a particular route, increasing from the current minimum of seven to ten eligible children, will be required to establish or retain services. All services transporting fewer than the minimum number of eligible children, either single services or those which are part of double tripping arrangements, will be discontinued with effect from the 2011-2012 school year. This brings the minimum numbers required to establish services back to 2002 levels. It should be emphasised that eligible pupils for whom a service is being withdrawn will be eligible to apply for the remote area grant.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and in so far as I have failed to address issues raised by him, I will ask the Minister of State to communicate directly with him.