Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Thursday, 6 Jul 2006

School Transport: Presentation.

On behalf of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science, I welcome Mr. Frank Wyse, assistant principal officer with responsibility for school transport; Mr. Liam Hughes, principal officer, and Mr. Camillus Hogan, assistant principal officer. Before we commence, I draw their attention to the fact that while members of the committee have absolute privilege, this same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite Mr. Wyse to make the presentation on behalf of the Department of Education and Science.

Mr. Frank Wyse

I was recently appointed assistant principal officer in the Department and given responsibility for school transport. I am accompanied by Mr. Hughes, principal officer, and Mr. Hogan, assistant principal officer, from the school transport section in Tullamore. We are glad to have been given this opportunity to update the committee on recent developments in this important area and associated issues.

I will give members some background information. The school transport scheme was established in 1967. At second level it effectively formed part of a series of measures intended to facilitate the introduction of a free post-primary education service. It has been one of our successes and instrumental in facilitating access to education by a large number of children over generations, including myself, as I availed of the service when I went to school.

Since the service was introduced, its usage has greatly increased, in tandem with the increase in the number of students attending primary and post-primary schools. Eligibility is based on distance criteria. One has to live 3.2 km from the nearest primary school or 4.8 km from the nearest post-primary school. I wish to emphasise before I go into more detail that Bus Éireann has overall responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the service. It acts on behalf of the Department; plans routes; employs school bus drivers; arranges for the contracting out of services, as appropriate; ensures compliance with legal requirements and implementation of safety regulations.

School transport provision is a very large and labour intensive logistical operation. Vehicles cover 46 million miles each school year. We cater for in excess of 135,000 children, including approximately 8,000 with special needs. Safety is of paramount importance to the Department. In terms of international comparisons, the safety record of the school bus service in Ireland is good but we are certainly not complacent. We must have regard for the number of quite serious accidents which have taken place over the years, including recent accidents which involved fatalities. These must focus our attention primarily on the safety issues and that is what we have been doing over the past several years.

In May 2005, just weeks prior to the tragic accident in Meath, the Department and Bus Éireann had commenced a safety initiative in preparation for the implementation of the EU Directive which required safety belts to be used in buses, where fitted, from May 2006. We had two new demonstrator school buses fitted with seat belts and these had been tested over a two-week period in counties Meath and Kildare.

From the point of view of the Department, the exercise served as a good test in identifying the potential issues that would arise, testing the reaction of pupils to the wearing of seat belts and the type and size of belt fitted. At that time also, the Department had been working on proposals for phasing out the infamous three-for-two arrangement, which had been a feature of the system for a long number of years. As the committee will be aware, this arrangement permitted the maximum loading on a school bus to be increased at a ratio of three students to two adults and was originally introduced as a method of maximising capacity on the school transport services.

Following the unfortunate accident in Meath, the Government set up a working group, which included representatives from the Departments of Education and Science, Transport and Finance to advance measures to ensure the enhancement of school bus safety. Bus Éireann attended, as required by the group. In July 2005, the Minister, Deputy Hanafin and Minister of State, Deputy de Valera announced a package of measures to enhance the safety of school transport operations. The measures included the phasing out of the three-for-two arrangement on post-primary services by the end of December 2005; the phasing out of the three-for-two seating on primary services by the end of December 2006; the acquisition of additional buses by Bus Éireann; the hiring of additional private vehicles to meet the consequential capacity shortfall, which would obviously undoubtedly arise as a result of the termination of the three for two arrangement; and the fitting of seat belts on the Bus Éireann school fleet and the setting of a target date of December 2006 for private buses in the scheme to be fitted with seat belts.

The feasibility of retrofitting safety belts in existing school buses was considered by the working group to which I referred earlier. This group consulted with national experts in a number of EU countries as well as with the European Commission in advance. The view was taken that any specification would need to be as consistent as practicable with the EU standards for new vehicles.

In general terms, those standards provide for the fitting of three-point belts in exposed seats, which are generally seats to the front and back of school buses, and either three-point or lap belts in other seats. On the basis of observed international practice in this area and on the basis of the EU standards the working group was of the view that lap belts, with associated safety measures, were the most appropriate for installation in retrofitting school buses. The associated safety measures include, for instance, the use of energy-absorbing material on the tops and backs of seats. This view of the working group informed the Government decision that all vehicles used in the school transport scheme should be equipped with safety belts by December of this year.

Having installed seat belts on school buses, it is essential that children wear them at all times and that their behaviour is appropriate and has regard to the inherent risks associated with travelling on, or in the vicinity of, school buses — undoubtedly there are risks inherent in that activity in any event. We would see education in that context as an important means of achieving compliance and we are making arrangements for a major information campaign for the general public and all school transport users. We intend that the campaign will be launched to coincide with the commencement of the next school year. The Department is very much of the view that schools, parents and Bus Éireann can work effectively together to develop and reinforce good safety practices on school buses.

In May last, the Minister for Transport made regulations giving effect to the EU directive relating to the compulsory wearing of safety belts in motor vehicles. Basically, those regulations provide that safety belts must be worn once they are fitted. The regulations also oblige owners of buses fitted with safety belts to ensure that passengers are informed of the requirement to wear safety belts while they are seated and while the bus is in motion. This obligation may be discharged by an announcement by the driver or conductor, by audio visual means or by signs or pictograms displayed at each seat. The provision of seat belts on school buses represents a major safety improvement in an already very safe service.

I will now provide a more detailed update for members of the committee on the roll-out of the various measures announced in July last. First, more than 220 vehicles have been hired from the private sector to address a capacity shortfall arising from the phasing out of the three for two seating arrangement on school buses at post-primary level. In addition, Bus Éireann has purchased 51 coaches and arrangements for the acquisition of an additional 30 vehicles are in hand. The company has also placed orders for the acquisition of 20 new dedicated school buses. I should explain that the coaches I mentioned previously are four to five years old and are in of extremely good quality. A number of the vehicles have already been received and it is expected that the balance will be delivered later this year.

At this stage, all of the 2,500 post-primary services are on a one-for-one seating basis. This is a major advance in a short period of time, considering the logistical operation involved, the amount of buses involved and the requirement for safety to be uppermost in everyone's mind. Bus Éireann has commenced retrofitting seat belts on its own school bus fleet and work is progressing well. The contractor for the work has developed specifications for each vehicle type in the company's fleet. I emphasise that we keep in constant contact with Bus Éireann in this regard. I have been working in this area for less than two weeks and I have already met with Bus Éireann and have already a further meeting arranged with the company for early next week. It has informed us that 375 of its fleet of about 650 school buses have already been retrofitted with seat belts and further assures us that it remains on target to have this work comfortably completed by August of this year.

Bus Éireann also inform us that there are about 2,700 private contractors' vehicles, including taxis and larger vehicles on stand by, in the school transport scheme, and that over 80% of these are already fitted with seat belts. The standard to which belts on contractors' vehicles have been fitted will need to be inspected by Bus Éireann and it is making arrangements with an external agency on a contract basis. The representative organisations for the private contractors have also been advised of the Department of Transport requirements for retrofitting.

As part of our commitment to safety, a pilot project involving a warning flashing lights system on 22 school buses was commenced in Ennis in January 2005. This system reduces the risk of accidents in the vicinity of the school bus as pupils descend. International research has shown clearly that the biggest danger on an ongoing basis for children is when they alight from or get on to a school bus. We obviously concentrate on overall safety, but there is a specific and inherent risk in alighting from and in the vicinity of school buses and that is an issue of concern to us.

The evaluation of the pilot scheme has been encouraging and we are currently investigating the possibility of extending it to a number of other areas. That would enable more extensive tests to be carried out on the effectiveness of this initiative. Based on the outcome of those tests, a decision will be taken on the extension of the scheme to the remaining parts of the country. Again, safety is the uppermost issue. This clearly is showing all the signs of being a major safety initiative and I think we would accept that it would be extended.

I understand that at a previous meeting the committee raised questions about increasing levels of expenditure on school transport. The overall expenditure stands at €152 million. A large part of this clearly must go on new services, improvements in the quality of services and alterations to existing services. Approximately 6% of all children carried are special needs children and we estimate that 33% of the allocation or €50 million is expended in this area. The cost of facilities for special needs children can be expensive because, in many cases, special transport, such as minibuses, wheelchair-adapted vehicles and taxis, must be provided. More than 600 additional services have been introduced since 1998 and almost 400 of these were minibus and taxi services, which were mainly for children with special needs.

The total number of vehicles in the school transport fleet is approximately 3,200. In relatively recent times, taxis were introduced as a new category of school transport and now more than 280 are in service. These are particularly expensive because a limited number of children can be accommodated but the runs must be paid for. 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 has increased by more than 150 and medium buses increased by more than 270. A further enhancement has been the funding provided to schools for escorts to accompany children with special needs. More than 600 escorts are employed at a cost in excess of €6.5 million per annum.

The Department considers that expenditure in this area is highly and fully appropriate, fully justified and in line with our obligation to ensure all children in the State derive maximum benefit from public education. The Department makes no apology for this expenditure. Other factors contributing to the increase in expenditure include the greater demand for improved services, which is a constant theme — I am sure members receive representations about this on a regular basis from constituents; more buses to facilitate shorter travel time — parents do not like their children to be unduly absent from school for prolonged periods; separate services instead of combined services and more modem and more specialised school buses.

Educational diversity has also emerged as a significant factor leading to increased costs. Traditionally, children attended their nearest primary school but, nowadays, parents expect greater choice in educational provision, particularly at primary level. Many parents exercise this choice by sending their children to schools such as gaelscoileanna, multi-denominational schools and denominational schools. Depending on the circumstances, this may require the establishment of new services for eligible children or the payment of a grant to the parent to assist with the cost of making private transport arrangements. Another factor is the retention of school transport services in rural areas, even where numbers fall below the threshold for establishing a service. We generally keep the service running, if possible, and that is an additional cost. For example, a school transport service is normally established if there are seven pupils residing in a distinct locality. Operational costs will become a factor, particularly the cost of fuel. We anticipate these costs will continue to exert upward pressure on school transport expenditure for the foreseeable future.

I also understand that members previously raised questions about catchment boundary transport. Post-primary pupils who are eligible for school transport to the post-primary centre in their own catchment area may choose to attend a post-primary centre in a different catchment area to the one in which they reside. In such instances, the pupils use school transport services on the basis of the availability of spare seats after all eligible pupils have been accommodated. We try as accommodate as many as possible catchment boundary pupils but it is not possible in all cases to provide 100% accommodation. Catchment boundary pupils are not guaranteed school transport for every year of their schooling. Transport depends on the availability of seats. Catchment boundary pupils are required to pay the same contributions as eligible post-primary pupils to avail of school transport.

In the case of primary and post-primary pupils who are not eligible for school transport on the basis of the distance requirements, transport is offered on a concessionary fare paying basis. The charge is €26 per term for primary pupils and €51 per school term for post-primary pupils. This amounts to €78 per annum for primary pupils compared with the child fare on a Dublin Bus of 50 cent, which equates to €92 per annum. This represents only a small portion of the total cost of providing the transport and the charge has not been increased since 1998.

My colleagues and I are happy to provide information during the question and answer session.

I thank Mr. Wyse.

I welcome the delegation and I wish Mr. Wyse well in his new position. I refer to the safety issue. I accept his comments about Bus Éireann's good record until the recent tragic accidents in Clara, County Offaly, and County Meath but, prior to those accidents, the committee also heard about the company's good safety record. The committee sought the abolition of the three for two seating rule several years ago and its predecessor recommended the fitting of seat belts in 1999. There is always room for improvement within the system but I welcome the progress on these issues. Mr. Wyse stated that three for two seating ended for post-primary pupils in December 2005 and that the practice will cease for primary pupils at the end of this year. Is he confident that will happen?

One of the greatest concerns of parents is the age of the fleet. The average age is 16 years but buses are in use, which went into service in 1983 and earlier. Because a bus is old, it does not mean it is unsafe but people are genuinely concerned. Nobody drives a 1983 car, which would be a vintage car at this stage. Naturally parents expect their children to be transported on newer buses. Mr. Wyse stated the latest buses to join the fleet were four to five years old. How much is saved by doing this rather than buying new buses? I presume it is a significant amount. In addition, these buses will be scrapped four to five years earlier than a new bus. Could the officials forward a breakdown of the bus fleet according to age, Bus Éireann's plans to upgrade the fleet and the timeframe envisaged?

Contractor buses is a greater issue because it is less easy to identify them. Bus operators usually use their older buses for school transport services and their better buses carry regular passengers. This is wrong. This may be a transport rather than an education issue. They should use the same standard of bus across the board. This is an issue we should raise with the Department of Transport.

Contractors will argue in terms of incentives for them. What is the Department's view in that regard? Should we have a scrappage scheme in the contractor sector to encourage them to get rid of old buses and bring in newer ones? I heard a transport operator talking about this issue on a radio programme. He said that to buy a new bus — I presume he meant a 54-seater — cost €220,000, but the daily rate an operator is paid by Bus Éireann would not even pay for the repayments on a loan and the insurance on the bus, not to mention paying the driver and for fuel etc. It is obvious that if it will not pay contractors to replace their buses, they will send out the oldest buses they can to try to make some sort of profit. That is their argument, but I would like to hear the counter argument. There have been complaints about the daily rate paid. How well is the plan for the fitting of seat belts on private buses succeeding? There is no incentive, as such, for owners to do that.

Some of the Bus Éireann contractor drivers have made another point. For example, two drivers were swapped on a route and the driver on the new route was then allowed ten minutes less to complete the route than the previous driver. There was no logical reason he could do it in the shorter time, particularly as it took longer to get through the town on the route every day. There is obviously a money saving for Bus Éireann in asking him to do it in a shorter time as drivers are paid according to the length of time it takes to cover the route. However, this does not seem to make sense. The driver feels there is a push within either the Department or Bus Éireann — perhaps the Department officials can comment on this — to try to get more people into the private sector because then the Department might be less involved because if transport is contracted out it becomes someone else's concern. This may be an inaccurate view, but it has been expressed.

There is a huge degree of inflexibility in terms of routes and the catchment boundaries have not been reviewed since the 1960s. I suppose it is up to the politicians to decide whether to review them, but they should because settlement patterns have changed since they were set and it does not make sense to stick to the old boundaries. Some schools have closed and others have opened during that time. Until the boundaries are reviewed, we will still have a problem.

One bus could not take a particular route, but the Department then said it would allow it take the route if someone paid for it to go the extra distance. The decision should have been based on whether the bus had time to go that route without putting people out. There was only approximately half a mile extra in terms of distance, but the Department would charge quite a significant amount to change the route. The decision should not be based on the issue of cost. The situation in question did not involve a door-to-door pick up as the person in question would still have to go to a pick-up point.

Escorts and supervision are another issue. I never travelled on a school bus, but there used to be a type of prefect system. I do not know who organised that system, but it seems to have disappeared and I do not know whether it would work nowadays. A driver cannot be expected to pay attention to the road and keep 54 children on the bus quiet. That is not possible. There is a real problem in this regard. Some buses have been taken off routes because of the children's behaviour. No parent seems willing to name someone else's child as the one who caused a disruption. I would like to see a supervisor or escort on each bus, but I know this would involve significant cost. If this will not be introduced, we will need to negotiate with schools to try and have a prefect system put in place so that there is someone with a degree of responsibility on buses.

What will the situation be with regard to concessionary or catchment boundary children from September? We had an ongoing row for almost all of August last year on this issue with some 7,000 children affected who could not get permission to travel on school buses. I accept that their transport was concessionary, but people have an expectation with regard to school transport. If some children on a lane or road get the bus, parents assume their children can go to the same school. They buy the uniform and their children get places in the school and everything seems to be going grand until they suddenly discover their children's transport will be concessionary. This was the situation throughout August last year and the problems with regard to some schools in Limerick and Westmeath and elsewhere were not sorted until much later.

People need advance notice of whether their children are entitled to transport. Concessionary transport children have built a strong case over time, but in legal terms the transport is still concessionary. Last year they should have known earlier whether they would have transport. I know it was a time of transition, but I would not like to see a repeat of what happened. Parents should know now whether their children will have transport. Will this be an issue this coming August?

I apologise for being late. I wish Mr. Wyse well in his job. We met Mr. Hughes and Mr. Hogan previously and have bothered Mr. Hughes on special needs issues. I congratulate the Department on the progress made in the past year with regard to eliminating the three-for-two facility and the fitting of seat belts. I realise we have not quite got there yet as the deadline is December 2006, but it appears we will get there. It was a significant logistical exercise to get to this point and it seems to be on track.

I support Deputy Enright on the need to revise the catchment boundaries. We have all encountered this problem. I encountered it with regard to the Pallaskenry issue which went on for some time, but was eventually resolved.

With regard to retrofitting of seat belts and the type of belts used, officials referred in the presentation to research done and that it was eventually decided that lap belts were most appropriate for retrofitting. I imagine this was the practical solution. I have looked at international practice and some countries have decided that lap belts are not the most appropriate, particularly for smaller children. Over the shoulder belts are considered more appropriate, or perhaps special types of seats that enclose the child. Are there other types of belts recommended for newer buses? If so, to what extent are they used? Has the Department looked at the system in large parts of the United States and Australia or New Zealand, where an enclosed seat rather than a belt is used? Are these kinds of measures being considered for the future?

There is an issue with regard to getting children to comply with rules of behaviour on buses. I note there is a campaign to inform the public and children on this. It is difficult for drivers to get children to behave. We should ask schools and parent associations to make the point to young people. Is there any training for drivers in crowd management? Management may come naturally to some. They may have a natural authoritative voice and find it easy to get the children to sit down and belt up, but others may not have that type of personality. Is there training or any information on techniques available for Bus Éireann drivers or private operators in this regard? It must be difficult for drivers to maintain control on buses, particularly with lively youngsters on their way home from school. This is an important issue in terms of ensuring children's safety.

The next issue I want to raise may not be a matter for the Department but a matter for legislation and for the Department of Transport. The roadworthiness tests for Bus Éireann buses are carried out by Bus Éireann in its garages and these are designated sites for roadworthiness testing. It seems wrong that Bus Éireann carries out its own testing. A person bringing a private car for a national car test, NCT, will bring the car to his or her mechanic first and believe that the car is all right, as happened to me. Despite bringing the car to my own mechanic, my car still failed the NCT and I had to go back and have something done. The roadworthiness tests for Bus Éireann should be carried out by an independent organisation or mechanics rather than by Bus Éireann. I am not making any suggestions regarding the accidents that have occurred but it is not a good idea in principle that the company carries out its own testing.

I congratulate Mr. Wyse on his appointment. I know he will bring the same professionalism, dedication and commitment to his new post that he brought to his previous posts. I have met him on many occasions in my previous existence in education and sport. I welcome his principal officer and the assistant principal officer. I think I have crossed paths with Mr. Hogan in a previous existence.

Safety is a preoccupation of all. On the basis of personal experience with a GAA club, I have some concerns which I wish to bring to the attention of the delegation. I commend fully and warmly endorse what has been said by previous speakers about the progress made by the Department in a short period on the issue of safety.

The safety aspects of boarding and alighting from buses is a central issue. I have experience of looking after under-15s while travelling. The behaviour of young people while on buses is one of my main concerns. I have serious concerns about it because it seems to be getting worse. On one occasion when we travelled to the south side for a match, the bus driver imposed a life ban from the bus on one of the players. This may be a reflection on me and on the two other parents but it happened. This reflects the unruly behaviour on buses. No training for bus drivers will ever meet the kind of dangers and hazards that are being created and the distractions caused by unruly pupils on buses. I do not know what the solution is to this serious problem.

Other speakers referred to the use of escorts. I call them safety officers. Some structure needs to be put in place quickly or we will all live to regret it, notwithstanding the significant progress made by the Department. This has been my experience on three or four recent occasions when three of us parents took over from two team managers. Even though I am a former teacher, we were at our wits end to control them on the bus. The bus driver warned them on several occasions that he would stop the bus and throw them all off. If this is a reflection of what happens on school buses, then God help us because we will face even worse. I hope I am not a prophet of doom.

In my capacity as a Senator I have written to the Department on the need for a review of boundaries and catchment areas. Many one and two-teacher schools have closed in recent years. I know of families from Whitefriar Street who moved out to Ballyfermot, Crumlin and Walkinstown. There was a family tradition of attending Whitefriar Street school and the children were bussed back. During the 1970s, large numbers of buses arrived at the door of Whitefriar Street school. Families with a traditional attachment to particular schools will always wish to hold on to that attachment, even when they move away. I understand that not all needs can be met and we cannot provide doorstep schooling everywhere.

I refer to children who had to board a school bus but first had to travel one or two miles to do so. The boarding site was regarded locally as being dangerous. A more flexible approach to the catchment area issue would have been preferable in their case, involving less hazard and an insignificant additional cost.

I apologise that I cannot wait to hear the delegation's replies but I look forward to reading them. I compliment the Department on the progress made in a short time in addressing what is one of the greatest challenges facing Ireland, namely, the issue of road safety.

I thank Mr. Wyse for his presentation. I wish to ask specific questions on the issue of seat belts and that of catchment and boundary areas. Deputy O'Sullivan referred to the situation in the United States and Canada where bus seats are close together and this is known as compartmentalisation. There has been recent controversy in the United States about injuries but there is also evidence that the proximity of specially padded seating offers some element of protection and that compartmentalisation is preferable to the use of lap belts. Evidence from the US and Canada show that lap belts can cause serious stomach and neck injuries while the three-point harness is not suitable for very young children.

The delegation's presentation stated that on the basis of observed international practice and EU standards, the working group was of the view that lap belts with associated safety measures were the most appropriate for installation in a retro fit situation in school buses. I agree with this finding. My research suggests it is almost impossible to retro fit a three-point harness into a bus.

Was the crucial factor one of cost in terms of the introduction of new buses rather than retro fitting old ones or was it to do with the safety issue? The Minister stated she was taking the view of the EU experts rather than the views of the experts in the US and Canada. I am still very suspicious because where safety is the only consideration, a three-point harness would be used in 90% of cases, with the exception of very young children. Has the delegation any figures regarding the cost of retro fitting in the rare instances where it is possible as against the cost of a new bus? Safety should be the first consideration. The phasing out of the older buses should be paramount. A policy decision could be made that any new buses should have three-point harness belts. The cost factor between a three-point harness and lap belts in a new bus is minimal.

On the issue of school catchment areas and boundaries, previous speakers said there has not been a review of these areas since 1969. This issue has been raised on many occasions by this committee. Successive Ministers have pooh-poohed the idea of a review. What is the logic in not reviewing them, given that the latest census will show huge population shifts in the 40 years since the last review? New types of schools such as gaelscoileanna and multi-denominational community schools have been established since 1969. Would it not be good practice to carry out a review? Have any estimates been made of the cost of carrying out a nationwide review of catchment areas and boundaries? Is cost the factor? I cannot understand why a review should not be carried out now, unless the cost is prohibitive. I apologise for needing to leave now, as I must go to the Dáil Chamber. If I cannot return in time for the responses, I will find them in the record of the meeting,

I welcome Mr. Wyse. I congratulate him and wish him well in his new position. I also welcome Mr. Hughes and Mr. Hogan, whose faces are familiar to the committee. While I would not attempt to answer the question put to our guests why we have not changed the catchment boundaries, I would not like the task of doing so, which I imagine could be a nightmare. However, that does not mean it should not be done. I know the difficulty relates to teacher allocation and other issues that might not always be obvious. I understand it would be an enormous task to change the catchment boundaries and to please everybody.

I am aware of areas in the country where families send children to both schools in the catchment area which seems to work quite well without needing to shift the catchment boundaries. Perhaps this could be considered for the future. Two buses run along the same road with each going to a different school. It seems to work quite successfully without the need to overhaul the entire system. What is the experience of the officials with such shared areas?

I wish to ask about children with special needs. I know of a child who is a wheelchair user and avails of private transport. I understand that all such children are accompanied by an adult in addition to the driver. While this is done at enormous financial cost, cost is not the issue in this case. The child would much prefer to travel on the bus with her friends. Obviously she feels isolated because of her disability. I am aware of a company in County Westmeath that provides a lift appliance that can be fitted to buses so that wheelchair users can get on and off the bus. It would be a much better solution in which the child could feel completely integrated with her school friends and cost would be another factor. It is an option worth examining.

Many children with special needs are transported by taxi, often over long distances. It is a wonderful service and I commend the section of the Department on all the issues outlined at this meeting, mainly the bus issue but also the unbelievable transport service available to children with special needs. Parents advise me that it is not always the taxi driver contracted by the Department who collects the child. What inspection does the Department carry out to ensure that the person contracted, who obviously would have been screened through the vetting unit, always drives the child and not somebody else who happens to want to go to the same town on the day? I am not sure how this can be addressed and inspections may need to be carried out.

I have a question on a separate topic. Have the officials had any discussions with the Department of Transport regarding urban school transport? At this time of year everyone living in Dublin can see that the traffic is much lighter during the school holidays. Would it not make sense to have school transport in the cities? While I know this is unrelated to the discussion we are having today, have there been any discussions along these lines? The Department seems to have been able to do a considerable amount in terms of hiring private vehicles. In terms of competitiveness, value for the economy and the relief of traffic, urban school transport would make considerable sense.

I concur with Deputy Andrews. The difference when schools are on holidays is unbelievable. It can cut journeys by 40 to 45 minutes especially coming into Dublin from bordering counties. In May the Taoiseach announced that he would encourage an independent audit of school buses. However, Bus Éireann has not confirmed that this has happened. While an internal audit by Bus Éireann is being carried out, that is not an independent audit of buses. Can the officials confirm that the certificate of roadworthiness is issued by a body other than Bus Éireann?

I know that Mr. Wyse is new to his job. However, previous holders of that post will have received letters over the years questioning the work of Bus Éireann mechanics. I can pass on evidence we were asked to consider. When I first received such a letter, I did not pay it much heed. I thought it had been written by a person with a grudge. While it has yet to come out, some of the suggestions made in the letter to me could prove very interesting in the Kentstown case in Meath. If this proves to be the case we need to wake up to what is going on. Regardless of the procedures and standards at European level, we must demand the best for our children, regardless of the cost. What happened in Kentstown cannot be allowed to happen again here. Some Department must take the lead on the issue and demand that extra bit to have a proper service with the appropriate requirements.

I understand from many companies contracted by the Department that school transport is not profitable for them. They take on a school transport contract on the basis that it is guaranteed business, but it is not really profitable. There is a danger of a lack of commitment to those school runs. Perhaps it is time to consider whether they are being paid enough. They do a serious job in carrying young people to school and should be rewarded accordingly. Given the costs of insurance, fuel etc., we have an onus to review what they are being paid to ensure they have an incentive to do it right and put the best driver on the run and not the weakest driver etc. We need to encourage them to take that further step. Often that encouragement needs to be financial.

I would like more detail on the choice between lap seat belts and three-point seat belts. I believe the three-point seat belt would be better. I am sure it has been researched and I would like to hear the officials' comments on the matter. I hope it was not done for reasons of cost. Is there a significant cost difference between lap seat belts and three-point seat belts? Mr. Wyse is shaking his head. If there is a significant difference in the cost, it would lead me to believe that this was the main factor in the choice.

Mr. Wyse stated that the greatest danger to children was during the time they were getting on and off the buses. Given that the service has existed for a long time, why do children still hop off the bus into a ditch or a grass verge? Surely we could have proper set-down areas. This is an issue not just for school transport but also for transport in general. Why not have a few concrete slabs and organise for children to be safe when they step off the bus? Hopping off and landing in a thorny bush does not make sense in this day and age. While this might sound dramatic, that is the way it is. Deputy Andrews from the city might not believe it, but it is a fact. The set-down points are much as they have been for years. While it might be costly for the Department to pay for such a scheme, we should give an incentive for schools or local authorities to do this work. It cannot be that complicated to do.

On the use of school buses outside school bus runs, perhaps there has been a change in this regard over the years, but I do not think so because I continue to see many school buses sitting idle during the day. It seems crazy that they are not being put to great use outside the times when they are used for school bus runs, especially in areas where people are trying to develop rural transport initiatives to get people moving from town to town and out and about. Many schools have to hire buses privately to do runs to swimming pools or to bring children on school tours. With a little imagination, surely school buses could be used in such circumstances, even it were to mean contracting them in. I am sure the schools are willing to pay. It does not make much sense to hire private buses when public buses are sitting idle down the road. It seems like a waste of resources. I am sure I will be told it is a mathematical or logistical problem, but I do not think it can be very complicated. Most school runs are finished at 10 a.m. and the buses are free thereafter.

Somebody has to take responsibility for the issue of reflector clothing because not enough progress is being made. Many children are not visible to people in motorised transport when they are walking to and from school or school buses. Somebody in the Department of Education and Science or in the Department of Transport has to take responsibility for this problem. I imagine that the school is the best place in which to organise this matter, perhaps when the roll is being called. When I was in school many years ago, each child was issued with reflector material free of charge, but that does not seem to happen now. If it is meant to happen, I can confirm that it is not happening. Someone needs to take charge of this area to guarantee that change will take place.

In 1999, the Joint Committee on Education and Science submitted a report on school transport to the then Minister. The report contained a wide range of recommendations on matters like seat belts. For example, it was proposed that each child travelling on a school bus should have a seat of his or her own. Even though the report was published a long time ago, no action was taken. I accept that something is being done now. It is too late for some people, but at least it is happening. I compliment the Department on the speed with which changes have been made since the political will for those changes was found. Should the committee try to raise the political will to bring about the acceptance of the other recommendations in the 1999 report? What other recommendations are under consideration?

On the need for attendants to be employed on school buses to help to keep control, I imagine most parents would be interested in trying to develop a voluntary scheme of that nature and in making it work. A roster could be drawn up whereby a certain parent would travel on the bus each day. I accept that a level of organisation would be needed. Perhaps people on community employment schemes and people on the dole could be involved. Some imagination is needed. It must be possible to get somebody to work on school buses. We cannot expect a bus driver to control 30, 40, 50 or 60 pupils while he or she is driving the bus. I know what happens on school buses. Those of us who have been on school buses know they are hives of activity, to put it mildly. We need to have somebody on each bus to help out. If parents volunteer to travel on buses, will insurance problems emerge? Will red tape be thrown at them? Will someone say "no, you cannot do it"? Can the departmental officials propose some ideas or initiatives to encourage the establishment of a scheme of this nature? If we use a little common sense, it might not cost very much.

I would like to speak about the issue of catchment areas and boundaries. Last summer was an interesting time in most of our offices, when many schoolchildren were not accommodated as a result of the changes which were made, rightly or wrongly. As my colleague, Deputy Enright, said earlier, when it is agreed that parents will pay for a bus to travel half a mile further than the original route, the costs which accrue to them seem very excessive. The costs place a serious burden on people. I would like an explanation of why they are excessive. I understand that a certain charge is imposed per child. Parents may have to pay for a bus to come to collect their child even though the bus is also collecting other children on that road. I know the costs may be reduced in such circumstances, but no additional costs at all should be imposed. If the bus travels along a certain road in any event, it is somewhat mean to look for more money.

I do not intend to dwell on what happened last year to the girls from Loreto Covent in Navan. We have discussed it enough. The pupils in the school, who have initiated the "Life is a Gift" campaign, are selling key rings to raise money for various causes. They are trying to increase awareness of school safety and school bus transport, etc. Has the Department consulted the pupils in question to see whether the experience of Loreto Convent can be used to remind children throughout the country to behave on buses and to wear seat belts? If we are to get the message across, perhaps we need to get young people to talk to other young people. The hurt and sorrow that will be in the hearts of the young people of Navan for the rest of their lives could be used as the best way of getting the message across to other young people who might not want to behave on buses. Although the results of the various investigations have not yet been finalised, most people who have been to the site of the accident in question are of the opinion that the five girls who died would still be alive if they had been wearing seatbelts. Most people accept that as a given, regardless of what actually caused the accident. We need to make the maximum effort to ensure that seat belts are used on buses when they are fitted on them. While I accept there should be an onus on parents and pupils, somebody has to make sure there is an overall strategy. That is the job of the Department of Education and Science.

Mr. Wyse

As I am new to this area, I will give a few general policy answers and then rely on my colleagues who are more familiar with the detail of this area to answer some of the more specific questions. The Department has concentrated on the issue of safety before now. It has some more work to do to ensure that everything is as it wants it to be. I will meet representatives of Bus Éireann on a number of occasions next week and over the coming weeks. When the safety issue has been put to bed, we may have an opportunity to examine a range of other issues we have not had an opportunity to consider. The members of the committee have mentioned many of the issues to which I refer.

I appreciate that the issue of catchment boundaries is of concern to many people. I would like to put it in context. Of the approximately 135,000 children who travel on the school bus network, between 8,000 and 9,000 of them live outside the catchment boundaries. The purpose of catchment boundaries relates to the type of provision at post-primary level that is made in a particular centre. If the Department builds a new school — buildings are extremely expensive and have to last for a long period of time — and provides a certain level of staffing in that school, it has to have an expectation that there will be a reasonably constant throughput of pupils to the school. When the Department makes precipitative changes to catchment boundaries, it has to be careful that it does not cause sudden and substantial changes in enrolment patterns. While that may well not happen, it requires a good degree of study.

The issue that needs to be borne in mind in respect of catchment boundaries is that the Department has to engage in a great deal of consultation, not only with schools but with the other partners in the education sector, before agreement can be reached to make any changes. School authorities can be quite attached to catchment boundaries. A process of consultation with the school authorities has to take place before changes can be agreed. School buses carry 135,000 pupils, just 8,000 of whom are affected by this issue. It is likely that any change in catchment boundaries would result in many more people being discommoded than being accommodated. The line of eligibility has to be drawn somewhere. The Department's priority has been safety, but it intends to address a number of other issues. Departmental officials will discuss the new priorities with the Minister and Ministers of State in the Department.

The issue of discipline does not just relate to school buses. A report that was published on discipline in schools generally found that it is a major issue which is quite difficult to deal with. It requires a persistent approach. The Department of Education and Science needs to ensure that the relevant authorities in each school make their students aware that certain forms of behaviour are inappropriate and, as I said in my presentation, quite dangerous in certain circumstances. We are familiar with instances of pupils falling through back windows. One needs to question how such accidents occur. The Department will have to deal with this issue in conjunction with schools and parents. It will emphasise the issue in the campaign that it intends to put in place as quickly as possible.

I know that the age of the fleet is an issue of concern to parents. We hope to ensure the age of the fleet is progressively reduced and it is our policy to do that on a phased basis. In the past year our resources have been devoted to the type of measures I have outlined. There is no question but that we aim to reduce the overall age of the fleet as much as possible.

I may contribute again later but for now I will hand over to my colleagues to address some of the more specific issues that were raised. They are more familiar with these issues as they have been dealing with them for a considerable period.

I will speak on the age of the fleet and give the committee some details on contractors' large vehicles and stand-by buses. Deputy Enright sought specific information on this matter. The number of contractors' large buses aged more than 20 years is 127. We have 300 buses aged between 16 and 20 years, 318 buses aged between 11 and 15 years, 269 buses aged between two and ten years and 170 buses aged under six years. We have two minibuses aged more than 20 years, 22 minibuses aged between 16 and 20 years, 162 minibuses aged between 11 and 15 years, 546 minibuses aged between six and ten years and 521 minibuses aged under six years.

In the Bus Éireann fleet we have 99 buses aged more than 20 years, 296 buses aged between 16 and 20 years, 193 buses aged between 11 and 15 years and 91 buses aged under 11 years, giving a total of 679. That figure includes stand-by buses. The average age of the Bus Éireann fleet is 15.1 years and the average age of the entire fleet is 11 years.

Deputy Enright asked whether we are on target to provide each primary school child with a seat by the end of December. Currently, we are on target. As Mr. Wyse, mentioned, we have currently provided all post-primary children with single seats.

Deputy O'Sullivan asked about Bus Éireann carrying out its own road worthiness tests. These tests are carried out under the Department of Transport regulations. Bus Éireann owns approximately eight out of the 100 test centres around the country where tests are carried out on some but not all Bus Éireann buses. Road worthiness tests are a matter for the Department of Transport.

Mr. Liam Hughes

I will address some of the points raised by Deputy Enright. She inquired about the possibility of a scrappage scheme. What is happening here, de facto, is that as we introduce additional buses into the scheme and hire in more capacity from the private sector, we are, in effect, rejuvenating the fleet. While there is not a scrappage scheme, per se, as a result of increasing capacity and adding newer buses fitted with seat belts, de facto, the average age of the fleet is being reduced. I have no doubt that when we next appear before the committee, perhaps in a year’s time, we will be able to record progress in that regard.

Are any requirements imposed on private contractors that their buses must be X years old? Can the Department be prescriptive?

Mr. Hughes

No, but obviously all of a vehicle's paperwork must be in order and it must have a certificate of roadworthiness etc. I concur with the point Deputy Enright made earlier that what is critical is not the age of the vehicle but that it is well maintained, serviced and safe. They are the key requirements. Inescapably, as we implement the safety agenda and hire in and buy newer vehicles, the age of the fleet is coming down.

Deputy Enright referred to a specific case where a bus driver was required to complete the route in a shorter time. That is an operational matter for Bus Éireann. I assure the Deputy that the Department does not have a cost-cutting agenda in this regard.

Deputy English raised the issue of the relative costs of different types of seat belt. In the entire investigative exercise that preceded the decision to install lap belts as part of the retrofit programme, the issue of costs did not come up once. We consulted other EU countries that had very good safety records. We also consulted the European Commission to see what was the regulatory position. What we came up with is what we regard as a pragmatic decision that will enhance the safety of school transport. The relative costs were not considered.

Were there big differences in the costs?

Mr. Hughes

We did not carry out a comparative analysis. If a three-point belt was the more feasible way of moving forward, regardless of the cost, that is the way we would have gone.

Other members referred to alternative types of safety measures such as compartmentalisation, as is used in the United States. The debate about that is ongoing but there is no way of us concluding that one system is more safe than another. In fact, Canada decided not to implement a retrofit programme. It was decided that the buses themselves were sufficiently safe and, provided good safety practice was applied, there was no need to install seat belts. From research carried out in Canada it was concluded that travelling by bus was 16 times safer than travelling by car. Inherently, school transport operations are very safe. By installing seat belts in vehicles we are adding an increment of safety.

Mr. Wyse

The question of escorts is something we will probably have to look at in some detail. Suggestions have been made about the possibility of a monitor system and we will certainly take up the matter with schools. The focus will probably turn to the issue of discipline and we will have to determine what type of measures we put in place to address that because, unquestionably, this issue will arise once the matter of seat belts etc. is out of the way. We will have to examine this matter with the utmost care. As Deputies must leave for a vote in the House we will probably have to get back to the Chairman in writing on some issues. We are prepared to reply in detail in writing to some of the issues we have not been able to address.

I would appreciate if Mr. Wyse would get back to the committee on those issues. I thank the delegation for attending today's meeting and for the informative discussion we have had on this issue which concerns every public representative.

The joint committee adjourned at 10.50 a.m. until Thursday, 14 September 2006.