With me today is my colleague, Ms Miriam Flynn, who is our chief schools officer. We are here at the invitation of the committee to address matters relating to the operation of the scheme and to provide an overview of the customer service and information specifically on the provision of our service to children with special needs.
I should say at the outset that we administer the school transport scheme on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills and only in accordance with the scheme's rules and guidelines. It is also subject to the policy and the instruction of the Department in all cases. We do not exercise discretion in respect of the policy, and all applications are simply dealt with in accordance with the rules and guidelines. It is also important to note that the operation of the scheme at present is for us highly complex and the scheme is administered only on a cost recovery basis. That is how we do it.
The operation of a safe school transport service, provided in an efficient and effective manner, is the highest priority for Bus Éireann in its management of the school transport scheme. In respect of ensuring the highest standards of safety, we always work with all the relevant stakeholders, including the Road Safety Authority, RSA, and the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, to ensure we improve the safety standards across all the national public service vehicle fleet. We apply very strict compliance criteria to all the contractors who operate on our behalf throughout the scheme.
Over the past decade in particular, the scheme has expanded dramatically in terms of vehicle numbers as the amount of services provided under the scheme has increased from 1,700 contractor vehicles in 1998 to almost 4,500 vehicles today. This year in the region of 300 new services were introduced by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills. The vast majority of these are implemented to cater for children with special educational needs. All the newly sanctioned services are opened to public tender. We must do it that way. In this respect, procurement of contractors can sometimes prove difficult in certain catchment areas, primarily as the economy recovers and alternative employment is made available. This factor has impacted our ability to deliver a very small number of services on time this year.
We manage the scheme impartially and uniformly on behalf of the Department nationally and do not have unilateral discretion to make local decisions that may be inconsistent with national policy. The eligibility criteria that must be satisfied by students who wish to avail of the service are set out under the guidelines of the scheme and implemented accordingly as required by the Department. A key focus of the recent media attention has been pupils who were ineligible not being accommodated on a service. The rules state that pupils who are eligible for school transport and who have completed the application process on time must be and are accommodated on school transport services where such services are in operation. We have confirmed that there is no shortage of places for these eligible children who have completed the application process and paid on time. Children who are not eligible for school transport but who completed the application process on time are considered for spare seats that may exist after the eligible children have been facilitated. These seats have been referred to as concessionary seats. Where the number of these applications for school transport exceeds the number of seats available, tickets are allocated using a random selection process. Under the terms of the scheme, the availability of transport for children who are not eligible varies from year to year, but this can only be based on the capacity of the buses operating on all the various routes. Capacity requirements are calculated according to the number of eligible children who qualify for the service. This is not expanded for concessionaries as this is not within the scheme's remit. We always prioritise the provision of places for eligible children, but sometimes there can be an excess of demand over supply for non-eligible places. It is worth noting that 27,500 tickets of this kind have already been issued this year.
Regarding special needs requirements, the principle of this scheme is applied not only where children in wheelchairs are concerned but to the transport needs of children attending the wide range of special schools and classes we serve in conjunction with the Department. We currently utilise over 2,500 vehicles every day to provide services for 12,700 children with special educational needs. The vast majority of these vehicles provide services door to door. This year has been different because we have received almost 2,800 new special educational needs, SEN, applications or requests for amendments to school services and this increase has certainly proved challenging in certain instances for the team at Bus Éireann.
There is a significant amount of work involved in many new special needs applications as the route must be newly established, tendered out, an award made and then an escort provided, in some cases by the school. Our staff are hugely committed to ensuring that any sanctioned service is provided as quickly as possible, but at times it has been a challenge to organise the combined availability of a suitable vehicle, a suitable driver and an escort, who must also meet the vetting criteria, for a specific case in a specific location. I assure the committee that we persist on this front and our dedicated staff always strive to ensure that the needs of every child sanctioned by the Department are met as soon as practicably possible.
This year we set up in conjunction with the Department a full programme of communications to try to improve our customer service provision. This included a dedicated call centre to assist parents with queries. An email was sent to all Deputies and Senators with information on the scheme addressing many of their frequently asked questions. This also included mobile numbers for all our regional school transport managers and our chief schools officer. We put in place a dedicated email, email@example.com, monitored daily to ensure we get back to the public representatives. This year we have set up four email reminders to all the applicants to remind them of the closing date for payments. A fifth email was also sent to all eligible applicants who had not paid by the closing date. In addition, we deployed social media channels and a website to provide additional reminders, trying to ensure we got all the applications in on time.
We have been operating this scheme and carrying the children of the State for over 50 years now. We are passionately committed to providing the service and want to do so for many years to come. We welcome the expansion of the special needs scheme in recent years but we must also continue to refine strategically our own resources, processes, procedures and technology to ensure we support the growing needs of the scheme in close liaison with the Department of Education and Skills. I thank all the members for the opportunity to address the committee. We are happy to deal with any questions.