I appreciate the selection of this subject by the Office of the Ceann Comhairle. I am very glad the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, is here to deal with this Topical Issue. I appreciate his engagement with me and other Members in regard to school transport. The issue pertains in particular to the start of the school year last year. The Minister of State facilitated meetings with constituents of mine, which I appreciate. Deputy Thomas Byrne mentioned earlier that there is a huge volume of work in July and August. Those of us who represent very rural constituencies know that much of our case work during August covers school transport issues.
As the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, and Deputy Byrne, the Acting Chairman, Deputy Durkan, and all of us in the House are well aware, school transport is a huge resource for rural Ireland. At times we do not factor it in enough as a necessary ingredient to ensure we retain population in rural Ireland. Recently, in reply to a parliamentary question, the Minister of State mentioned to me that approximately 116,000 children avail of school transport on an annual basis. It shows the huge importance and value of the school transport system. By and large it works well, but there are always difficulties, and we all know that wherever we have a boundary or a border there will be a difficulty. That is the problem.
I have a particular concern about the changes introduced some years ago. Members of a family may have traditionally attended a post-primary centre but after changes were introduced younger siblings were not entitled to transport to the same centre their older siblings attended. We cannot have a situation where all siblings may attend one primary school but two older siblings then attend two different post-primary centres. The method of calculation is that people have to go online to apply for a ticket and Google Maps provides information on the distance. Some of the suggested routes to calculate the distance between the home and the post-primary centre take people along roads that are not passable for a motor car never mind a minibus or a large school bus.
I would appreciate if some greater flexibility could be given to Bus Éireann in making decisions literally on the ground. I know of one case in my county where on a particular loop road one family is deemed eligible for transport to a school, but it is further away from the school than another family, and whatever way the calculation was made it is the reverse of what it should be. We have to allow the Bus Éireann personnel, who do a good job often in difficult circumstances, to be practical and measure the distance from the home on the basis of the passable route and the route people use.
All of us who represent rural constituencies know that traditionally some parts of a parish may have a different village or town as its town or village to the other half of the parish. There are boundaries and natural catchment areas. The least that could be done in this case is where older siblings have attended a specific post-primary centre that younger siblings should not be denied the same level of school transport as the older siblings to that centre.
I know granting concessionary tickets is a very welcome development but there is a cost to it for many families. All of us know families with primary and post-primary school children. They have huge costs. We should ensure younger siblings are entitled to the same level of service as their older siblings who went to the school deemed to be their local post-primary centre.
It is not easy to draw up a national scheme that will meet all requirements because of geography, topography, roads and natural catchment areas that evolved and are not coterminous with the parish boundary of the school catchment area. Bus Éireann does a good job on the ground. Give it the flexibility to make decisions and submissions to the Department to deal with those anomalies that arise.