I very much welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, to the House.
School Transport: Statements
I thank the Seanad for allowing me this opportunity to discuss the issue of school transport. To put things in context, I should explain that the school transport scheme is an administrative scheme established in 1968. It was created to facilitate equality of access to primary and post-primary education for those children who, because of where they reside, might otherwise have difficulty in attending school regularly. It is a national scheme, the purpose of which continues to be to support the transport to and from school of children who reside remote from their nearest school. It is not an absolute right, and requires minimum numbers of eligible children residing in a distinct locality before the service can be established and retained. It provides what is called a reasonable level of school transport service in the context of the scheme nationally.
Senators are familiar with the fact that school transport is managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. During the 2016-2017 school year almost 116,000 children, including 12,000 children with special educational needs, were transported in more than 4,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country, covering more than 100 million km. In 2016, the total cost of school transport amounted to €182 million. This included direct transport services, grant payments and funding to schools for the employment of escorts to accompany children with special educational needs, whose care and safety needs are such as to require the support of an escort.
In general, children are eligible for school transport if they attend their nearest school and satisfy the requisite distance criteria of 3.2 km for primary children and 4.8 km for post-primary children. Families of eligible children, for whom no school transport service is available, are eligible for the remote area grant towards the cost of making private transport arrangements. No distance criterion applies for children with special educational needs, but these children must meet the Department’s criteria for special educational needs and must also be attending the nearest facility that is, or can be, resourced to meet their special educational needs. Children who are not eligible for school transport may avail of school transport on a concessionary basis only. Concessionary transport is subject to a number of terms and conditions, including the availability of spare seats after all eligible children have been catered for and payment of the charge, even if the child holds a medical card.
Again, many Senators are aware that changes to the school transport scheme were announced in budget 2011 and derive from recommendations in a comprehensive value for money review of the scheme. This is the scheme under which I am obliged to work. The changes announced included the cessation of the closed central school rule at primary level, the cessation of the catchment boundary areas system to determine eligibility at post-primary level, and an increase from seven to ten in the minimum number of eligible children required to establish or retain a service. As a consequence of these changes, the school transport approach now complements the overall Department policy, which is to ensure that specific school accommodation needs for defined geographical areas are addressed in an orderly fashion.
It is important to note that children who had an eligibility for school transport prior to the introduction of the changes retained this eligibility for the duration of their education at that school, provided there is no change in their circumstances. However, all new children, including siblings of existing eligible children are assessed for school transport eligibility under the revised criteria. Therefore, the school transport scheme is in a transitional phase. One result of the transition phase is that children in the same family or, indeed, area may have school transport eligibility to different schools. This transition period has also seen an increase in the number of children receiving concessionary school transport. The majority of these children have chosen to attend a school other than their closest school under the terms of the scheme.
The programme for Government committed to a review of the concessionary charges and rules element of the school transport scheme. This review was published in December 2016, and I decided, on consideration of the review, to continue with the current position regarding charges for concessionary transport. In addition, following consideration of the review and discussions with the cross-party Oireachtas group I established to feed into the review process, I decided there would be no planned programme of downsizing school buses in the 2016-17 school year. However, a detailed analysis of school transport services as they currently operate is now required, and I accept this. This analysis will involve an examination of existing routes and how these routes relate to the location of eligible children.
The major policy changes introduced from September 2012 will take a full post-primary cycle of six years and a full primary cycle of eight years to feed through the respective schemes. Given that those eligible children already in the system when the new rules were introduced retained their eligibility, we are now nearing the point where all eligibility is under the post-2012 school transport criteria. This means the number of eligible children on a significant number of services at primary and post-primary level is falling below the minimum number of ten for September 2017, and from September 2018 it is likely that there will be no new eligible children on these services. My Department has been working with Bus Éireann to assess the likely number of services due to be withdrawn because there are fewer than ten eligible children on the bus. As just explained, given that the transition phase from the old to the new criteria for school transport eligibility is nearing an end, it is very unlikely that the services falling below ten eligible children will reach ten eligible children in the future.
Having reviewed the position as outlined, I have decided that no service will be withdrawn in the coming school year where an eligible child is availing of the service, and there will be no planned programme of downsizing school buses for the next school year, from 2017 to 2018. There will be route changes and variations in line with normal operational decisions that occur from year to year, and any impacts in terms of increases or decreases of available places nationally is expected to be marginal, in line with what occurs every year. Significant changes will be necessary from September 2018 to ensure value for money in the school transport scheme and to ensure that school transport services are designed around eligible children on an equitable basis nationally. In light of this, I have asked the Department to work with Bus Éireann to carry out a detailed route analysis identifying where there will be substantive changes to the route network or vehicle size from September 2018 to reflect eligible children and put together a comprehensive communications plan to inform all parents of likely changes that will be implemented from September 2018.
Outside of the issue of concessionary school transport, the cross-party Oireachtas group made a number of submissions on the scheme generally. While a number of the submissions cannot be progressed because of the policy implications and the impact on the budget of the scheme, there are a number of areas where further examinations were made. These are options on instances where errors occur in categorisation of eligibility; a process around the refund of charges paid in cases where a ticket does not issue; options on the implementation of the minimum numbers required for the retention a service; a review of the guidelines for the School Transport Appeals Board; and options to improve customer service.
Bus Éireann continues to engage with officials in my Department on improving customer services and is examining the process around the refund of charges. I have agreed proposals on errors in categorisation under certain conditions to allow children retain eligibility for the remainder of their education at the school. In regard to the withdrawal of services, where a school can provide evidence that the minimum number will be attained within two years, then the service will be left in place, at my direction. The review of the School Transport Appeals Board has recently been submitted and I am considering this report.
To reiterate, the school transport scheme is significant. It transported more than 116,000 children on a daily basis over the last school year, and 12,000 of these children had special educational needs who were provided with a door-to-door service.
This scheme costs €180 million and it is applied equitably on a national basis. Since I took over responsibility for the school transport scheme, I have endeavoured to do all I can possibly do. I have met all Oireachtas Members who asked to meet with me. I have met with representatives from their constituencies, families or others to do what I can do, but I am restricted by the criteria set down in 2011 and 2012 under the legislation. One of the big issues has been the minimum of ten children on a bus. Against the direction which I was asked to take in the matter, I decided not to take any bus off its route if the school could show that ten children would use the bus in the following year. I have set up an Oireachtas group for representatives from all parties to meet and make their suggestions on school transport. Many such suggestions have been made.
This system, which caters for 116,000 children, 12,000 of whom have special needs, is a very fine one. Are there flaws and small hiccups in it? Of course there are. When we are transporting so many children on so many vehicles for so many hours over so many miles - 100 million km every year - of course there will be some faults, but it has always been my aim for every eligible child to be transported to and from school. I ask Senators to bear all this in mind. As I have said, my plan is to continue to meet Members of the Oireachtas and to meet with the committee which I have set up. I have never turned down a request to meet with any Oireachtas Member, family, councillor or Minister to speak about the school transport scheme. I compliment the authorities which work with me. It is a difficult and complex scheme to run. It requires monitoring every day of the week to make sure the children we transport get to their destination and that every child with a special educational need is given the same rights as every other child. We successfully transport 12,000 such children every day.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit inniu. He is very welcome to the House this afternoon to discuss this very important issue. I am heartened by his comments and his commonsense approach to this issue. We are all at one in singing the praises of this scheme. That is taken as a given. The merits of the scheme are well known. Unfortunately, there are issues with it, some of which the Minister of State outlined today. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills. We held a discussion on this issue yesterday, at which a number of stakeholders appeared before the committee to outline their concerns and issues in respect of the scheme's administration. It was very worthwhile. What I took from it was that we have a lot in common in respect of this issue. We all want to ensure every child gets to school and that no child is left standing along the road. There are a number of issues which probably need a little bit of tweaking.
This is my first year as a Senator. When I came back here in September of last year, it was absolute mayhem. I am sure it was the same for every Member of both Houses. There was a lot of confusion among families because children were being left behind. There seemed to be very little co-ordination in respect of the entire set-up. The Minister of State undertook a review of the school transport system at the time. I am sure he received many representations. He lives in a rural constituency and I am sure he is not immune to the issues which affect us. That review took place but unfortunately nothing has come out of it, as far as I can see. I hope I will be proved wrong in that regard and that when we come back here in September there will not be the same problems which we discovered last September.
Some issues with the scheme arose from the meeting with stakeholders yesterday and I will touch on a number of them briefly. The first is in respect of the concessionary issue whereby a child could be left behind. It is disappointing that there seems to be very little leeway and that the administration of the scheme is very straitjacketed. When appeals are made it seems to be a kind of a fait accompli. There is very little movement from the Department's side in respect of appeals. That issue arose from the representations which we received yesterday and it is definitely an area which needs to be looked at. The other area which came up yesterday in respect of the concessionary seats was around people with medical cards. There is an anomaly whereby, in the school transport scheme at the moment, vulnerable families with medical cards have to pay for concessionary school transport. Perhaps that is something the Minister of State might look at for us.
We also heard a presentation which touched on the area of special needs. The Minister of State outlined that some great work has been done in that respect, and there is no doubt about that. The witnesses touched on a number of issues yesterday. One lady described how a child had a bus journey of more than two hours. That is very disappointing. Perhaps there are issues to examine in terms of routes. That is also something the Minister of State could look into. They also touched on the issue of the buses themselves, some of which are not wheelchair accessible. That is also an issue the Minister of State might bring on board. This witness also touched on ensuring that the drivers of these buses are especially sensitive to the any special needs children might have and that they are conscious of, and experienced in, handling situations which might arise on the bus.
The other issue was route reviews. A question about how often a route is reviewed by the Department was asked yesterday. The answer we heard was slightly vague. It basically said that they were reviewed on an ongoing basis but we were not sure whether that meant every one year, every two years, every five years or whatever. I know of a case in County Monaghan, where I live, where it has been more ten years since a route was reviewed. The family situation in that area has changed quite dramatically, as I am sure the Minister of State can appreciate. Perhaps that issue of reviews is also something he could take on.
I fully accept it is a good system but there are issues that need to be looked at. Based on the presentations we heard yesterday at the committee and the contributions which I am sure the Minister of State will hear today, I trust he will take those issues on board and that when we come back here in September, there will not be absolute mayhem again. I hope it will be calmer this year and that we will have learned from the mistakes of last year so that things will run a bit more smoothly for all concerned.
I warmly welcome the Minister of State to the House. Any time I have made contact with his office he has been more than forthcoming in facilitating a prompt and speedy response to communications on this matter, and other matters, and in facilitating meetings with parents, stakeholders and county councillors. They were impressed and they appreciate that the Minister of State gave up his time and did not delegate that function to anybody else but rather oversaw it himself. I acknowledge that because it is important.
I welcome the Minister of State's comprehensive report today. I particularly note that he stated that, having reviewed the position, no school service will be withdrawn for the coming year. That is also to be welcomed. The Minister of State said that he is reviewing the School Transport Appeals Board. It would be interesting to have some feedback on that, once he has reviewed it, and to see what the review recommends. It is interesting that the Minister of State said in his opening remarks that this scheme was first established in 1968. He began by mentioning equality of access to school. I will cite a particular case which I have raised with the Minister of State's office before. It is an issue which Councillor Nicholas Crossan of Donegal County Council raises with me. It is about a particular family whose children are at post-primary school level. It is a family of three and its oldest child had gone on to a school which was not the closest school to their home. There was a difference of approximately 1 km between two schools, one in Buncrana and one in Carndonagh.
There are two routes. It is important to give an example to try to illustrate what I am saying. The family have chosen to send their three children to the school in Buncrana. There is a kilometre in the difference in the distance to the two schools. The school in Buncrana is the family's choice. We talk so much about choices in education. The choice may be made for a range of reasons, including ethos, disability and special needs. We have to treat everyone equally, but the family in question have been refused. I understand that to be eligible under the scheme, one must be within a distance of 4.8 km. I also understand that if one has a medical card and attends the nearest school, the service is free. If, however, one has a medical card and attends the school of one's choice farther down the road, it is not free. If one has no medical card and attends the nearest school, one must pay €350. What on earth are we doing in this day and age charging people to attend a school? Why are we talking about our commitment to invigorating and supporting rural communities if this is occurring?
I happen to live in Dún Laoghaire in south County Dublin. There are 15 national schools nearby and certainly eight or nine secondary schools, be they private, single-sex, multidenominational, of no denomination or Educate Together. I am not complaining, but people around the country do not have these choices. It is really important to acknowledge this.
I spoke to somebody in the location in question who told me that they were Church of Ireland and that their child could avail of the service for free. As I am Church of Ireland and a member of the Church of Ireland tradition, I have no difficulty in making this point. Church of Ireland children can travel for free based on their religious background and choice. That surely cannot be right in a republic in 2017 and I would like to hear what the Minister of State has to say about it. If we are talking about choice based on tradition, different models of education or younger children wishing to attend the school of their older siblings, we surely need to support those concerned, but the scheme is not flexible enough. I accept what the Minister of State is saying in that regard. He has inherited a scheme, but it is not flexible enough. It is important that there be equal access to education and that we respect parents' choices.
The Minister for Education and Skills was here recently talking about special status in the context of the baptismal arrangements for schools. Again, the pupils associated with the Church of Ireland, of which I am a member, have received preferential treatment and I am not afraid to say it. Is this right in a republic in 2017? I suggest it is not. All people should be treated and respected equally and given equal access to health, education and community services, as well as every other service in the State.
The payment of the family who have decided to send their children to a school 1 km farther than the nearest school, that is, in Buncrana rather than Carndonagh, is capped at €650, the maximum figure. Why are we asking people in isolated communities in rural areas to pay to gain access to a State school or the State education system? It is fundamentally wrong. I accept that considerable money is being spent, but funds have to be put in place to support families who wish to have their children educated. Ideally, there would be community schools open to all, embracing all traditions, cultures and backgrounds. That, however, is not the reality on the ground, particularly in rural areas. I acknowledge that I have been making broad statements, but this is a genuine issue. We cannot make a case for one child over another.
With regard to the situation in Buncrana-Carndonagh, is there any room for change based on road infrastructure, the fact that school buses have not been able to travel on some roads for up to two months in the winter and the fact that families want to continue to send children to where their older siblings go to school and where they have built relationships in order that they may all come home together? People, including parents, are flexible. Are we seriously saying that in 2017, under a Fine Gael-Independent Alliance Government, the priority is to rebuild, consolidate and support rural communities? If so - I do not doubt the Minister of State's commitment in that regard - we need to start in the areas of health, education and community services. This issue needs to be addressed in the interests of fairness and equality.
I welcome the Minister of State and acknowledge his passion for and commitment to his role in respect of school transport. He stated the system had been brought about in 1968 and further changed in 2012. There are 116,000 children availing of school transport daily, including 12,000 with special needs. I understand there is a recommendation that everybody on a school bus, including the special needs assistants and driver, should receive some training in dealing with children's needs. Each child has his or her own difficulties. It is important, therefore, that everybody associated with school the transport scheme receive full training. I would like to ensure this.
Where there is no transport service available in rural areas, there are grants available for putting in place private transport arrangements. I acknowledge the role of the NCSE which advises on school transport needs. Ultimately, we want all children to get to and from their destination in a very safe manner. That is most important.
That there were 410 new services put in place in 2016 is significant. The Government has committed to not cutting any route, certainly this year, which is most commendable.
Yesterday I attended the meeting of the education committee which was referred to by Senator Robbie Gallagher. Somebody in Tipperary was on to me about 12 children who attended a certain school but who had to be driven 2.5 km by the parents to connect with the bus service. As Senator Victor Boyhan said, common sense has to prevail in tweaking some of these routes. The Minister of State has said he is available in that regard and I will certainly be back to him about it. There are 12 children affected attending the school in question. Each morning the parents have to operate according to a rota to drive the children to the bus collection point. I have come across a number of such examples.
Gaelscoil an Ráithín in Limerick is to relocate from Garryowen Rugby Club to Mungret. The distance is over 4 km, but it is not at the 4.8 km threshold. The new school is being built and pupils will be moving to it in September. Bus Éireann currently runs no bus service on the route. There is actually no public transport service on the route to the new school. The school and the parents were on to Bus Éireann, which has not committed to putting any service in place. People were able to walk the children to the school at its current location, or they were able to get the bus from relevant areas, but there is no bus route to the new school. This certainly needs to be considered and I am sure the Minister of State is willing to take it on board. Other examples were raised at the meeting of the education committee and come back to common sense. I acknowledge the Minister of State's commitment in that regard.
Many routes are operated by private companies under contract. There are children who live on one side of Limerick and attend school on the other because their needs are such that they require smaller classes. The private bus operator has been contracted to pick up passengers in the centre of the city to take them to the school, but the bus driver actually passes the 12 children who congregate every morning for their parents to pick them up at a central point. Since they are not on the contracted route, the parents must transport them.
I commend the Minister of State for all he is doing, but it is welcome news that there will be no cutbacks under the school transport scheme.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. He is genuinely trying to tackle the problem of school transport. There are major problems in that regard. The word "tweaking" was mentioned, but far more needs to be done. I do not lay the blame on the shoulders of the Minister of State because I know exactly what happened. I am one of the probably few people who read the report of the former Minister for Education and Skills, Mary Coughlan, in 2009 or 2010 on school transport. Reading it and between the lines, it was obvious that an assumption had been made that households had two cars and no longer needed school transport. The approach taken was to consider how the school transport scheme could be worked out of the system and that is what was planned. In the budget for 2011 a cost was introduced to try to charge people out of the system. As the Minister of State knows, the charge is now €100 per pupil in national school and €350 for secondary school pupils. I am not heartened by what the Minister of State said because there are huge problems with his plans. As I mentioned, affordability is a huge problem for households because they have to pay so much money. I have received a text message from Bus Éireann to pay €650 by the end of July or my child will not have a seat on the bus. The fee has to be paid and is being demanded. Many households do not have the money because they are trying to pay all of their other bills.
The nearest school rule is splitting families by forcing pupils to attend different schools. One might question whether siblings attending the same school is a luxury and it is sometimes suggested it is a parent's choice, but to understand rural schools and the subject choices that may be available in one school but not another, one could take the example of a parish called Ballycroy of which the Minister of State has probably never heard. For decades, half of the children of the parish attended schools on Achill, while the other half attended schools in Belmullet. That worked perfectly fine and people had a choice, but they are now being forced to measure from their door to one school or another, never mind that it may not meet the choices, skills and abilities of their child. The rule is splitting families, forcing children into a school that may not be suitable for them and splitting the parish in two.
The increase in the minimum number of pupils, from seven to ten, for a school bus to be provided has caused huge problems in rural areas where there are insufficient pupils. I acknowledge and it is welcome that if a school can show that its numbers will increase in the following year, a certain flexibility will be allowed. School buses come in all shapes and sizes. Why can there not be a school bus that fits the needs of the route of the parish of pupils it needs to pick up? Branding children as being concessionary and eligible passengers and so on is irrelevant. These are children who want to go to school to access education. Surely the size of buses can be adapted to meet the needs of children rather than the other way round.
Concessionary students are in a really vulnerable position. They are forced into a lottery system. They are paying in, as many did last year, and do not know whether they will have a seat on the bus come September. The number of concessionary students has hugely increased since 2011. This must be considered and taken into account, as must the fact that concessionary students are not counted when it comes to a decision on the retention of the school transport route. It does not matter if a school has 20 concessionary students. Although it is not within his remit, the Minister of State knows that the threshold for medical cards is absolutely ridiculous, but to have school transport judged on these ridiculous levels is nonsense. The inflexibility in terms of how the Department has handled the issue is atrocious.
The Minister of State has said no service will be withdrawn, which has been welcomed. However, I note that he said that no service would be withdrawn for eligible pupils, which is not to say no service will not be withdrawn but only those for eligible pupils.
This issue has been considered in terms of reviews and value for money reports. It is not about value for money. What is being done in terms of school transport is not value for money. It is economic and social folly in putting barriers in the way of children going to school and having such inflexibility on routes that cannot be adapted to meet the needs of children. I acknowledge that the budget has been cut, but it is not making real savings when one considers the future impact on rural communities and children in accessing education. I hate to say it, but I believe the Government is hiding behind the legislation. Members are legislators and it is our business to legislate to change the system for these children. That is why we are here. It is not good enough for the Minister of State to say he must work within the parameters of legislation. Legislation can be changed for all types of issues, many of which are not nearly as important as children being able to access education. It would cost a mere €7 million extra to provide every child with a seat on a bus. Today, we have seen Royal Dutch Shell selling its stake in Ireland's natural resources to a Canadian pension fund for €1 billion. For heaven's sake, what are we at? It is to receive €1 billion for that stake, yet the Government cannot find €7 million to provide seats for children on school buses. Forcing parents to reduce their hours because they have to pick up their children and so on does not make economic sense either.
I know that the Minister of State is open to change on these issues and would like him to come back to the House having identified the legislation that needs to be changed and having a plan for how Members can work together to change it in order that every child will have a seat on the bus, regardless of whether they are eligible, concessionary or have any other label that might be put on them.
I welcome the Minister of State. I appreciate that when dealing with his ministerial responsibilities he has inherited a system and must do his best to manage it. This is an incredibly important scheme. I benefited from this type of scheme when I was a young boy in travelling from Malahide to attend primary school in Baldoyle and I am well aware of its benefits.
I raise an individual case which has been raised with the Minister of State by my party colleague, Deputy Sean Sherlock, relating to a Church of Ireland child in Mallow, County Cork. However, the main issue I wish to address is that I have listened to other Senators saying what an important scheme this is and how supportive they are of it. However, the Minister of State is aware, as am I, of rumours, allegations and question marks in parts of the country regarding contractors, subcontractors and so on. Perhaps it might be time for an external review of the entire system. It is an incredibly important service and access to education is fundamentally important to the State. The ability of children to access a school is hugely important, as is the ability of the State to provide the service. The Minister of State knows as well as I do that in certain parts of the country there are whispered allegations of who got what contract, how they got it and so on. This is Ireland, after all. Is the Minister of State aware of local tensions or rumours about local contracts to provide school transport?
Would the Minister of State be willing to discuss the possibility of having an absolute root-and-branch investigation as to how the service is being rolled out? At €180 million annually it is a lot of money but it is money that needs to be spent to ensure that children can access their schools. At the same time, is it being spent effectively and can we find a mechanism so that everybody has trust in the system? It is my understanding from listening to colleagues around the country - and I do not believe I am saying anything here that would shock anybody - that there tends to be a level of rumour and speculation as to how and why somebody got a contract, how it is being done and how safe that individual transport agency is.
I wish to raise an individual issue, which I believe the Minister of State has come across already, that relates to a child who attended a Church of Ireland school in Mallow. I know the Minister of State has corresponded with Deputy Sherlock on this issue. The child in question is Sharon Dawson, the daughter of Rachel Dawson. This is on the public record and I am not naming anyone who has not previously been named. The daughter was attending a Church of Ireland school in Mallow, County Cork, but the school is no longer in existence. The arrangement during the school closure was that the entire enrolment of that school be moved to the community national school, Scoil Aonghusa, a move which places this child outside of the 3.2 km zone for eligibility for school transport. She is being encouraged by the Department to attend a different school even though the entire enrolment of her Church of Ireland school has now decamped to the community national school. The child does not qualify, technically, for the free school transport scheme.
Deputy Sherlock, the parents and others who advocate on behalf of the child are saying that the religious background of this child is militating against her. This situation could be easily rectified. It was a decision of the patron, in conjunction with the Department of Education and Skills, to move the entire student body from school A to school B, and this child was attending that school. It would make perfect sense, therefore, that if the decision was made the child would be facilitated with the school transport scheme to enable her to attend the school. The Department, however, feels otherwise.
Our education system is a complex one and is interwoven with all sorts of issues. It is very problematic with patronage and all the rest of it. Religion and faith is all woven within that. It is the system we have, is the system we have inherited and is the system we must work under. It is reasonable that if the child is part of a school body that is moved to a second school, and she is willing to attend that school, then the school transport would be provided as a result. I know the Minister of State has corresponded with Deputy Sherlock on this matter and I know the Minister of State is particularly sympathetic to the situation, but the situation persists. Will the Minister of State look at it? I also have correspondence from Canon Eithne Lynch who feels strongly about the matter. Perhaps the Minister of State could raise the issue and get it resolved. Obviously, come September it would be great if the child could be facilitated.
The overall issue is that it is an incredibly important system. It is important that across the House we all acknowledge that children must be able to access school. That is fair enough. I do not think, however, that we can dismiss outright the rumour mill that happens in various parts of the country. I always get concerned when the State cannot absolutely 100% provide for services and they have to be outsourced. There is any amount of potential for conflicts of interest, for accusations and for diminution of standards. When the State is involved, at least then one can have an over and back, there is accountability and a row can be had with the Minister or the CEO of the agency. When it is sub-contracted out there is always a question mark over standards, safety and all the rest. We do not really need to go down that line again; we have had too much pain in that regard in the past.
Without putting too much pressure on the Minister of State, my party and I believe that the time has probably come to make the case for an independent or external review - or whatever phraseology is needed - of the entire system and how it is working so people can have faith in the system, in the way the tenders are given out, in the way the sub-contracting arrangements are made and if they are actually fit for purpose. I appreciate that the Minister of State is dealing with a situation that he feels strongly about. I know that he is happy to meet with any delegation and any Member of the Oireachtas to deal with certain issues of concern. I ask the Minister of State to give his own reflections on whether or not a root and branch review is needed of how the entire system is being operated. I feel strongly about the situation of the child in Mallow, County Cork, and the representations made to me by Deputy Sherlock. Perhaps that matter could be resolved.
I welcome the Minister of State and I acknowledge his commitment to this project, which is especially important in rural Ireland. The school transport service for our primary and post-primary students has worked well since 1968. It is important that we keep the service going and do our best to provide the service, in many ways in greater amounts and in key areas.
There have been significant changes to the scheme, particularly in 2011 and 2012. Those changes are the key issues that I come across as a public representative. The change in the minimum requirement from seven eligible children to ten eligible children is a huge issue that I come across in most of the rural schools in my part of the world. The concessionary basis is another issue but the eligibility requirement for ten children for buses to small rural schools is an issue. Those changes to the legislation in 2011 and 2012 had a knock-on effect. In so many ways that is the key and the nub of it for me in my part of the world. I am talking about schools with three or four teachers and 70 or 80 students. The change in eligibility requirements is a huge issue for them. In time I would like us to look at that legislation again. I realise the Minister of State is tied by that legislation, but the eligibility requirement increase from seven to ten children is a very high requirement at the moment.
Other Senators have spoken of the costs. It is far from free education; €650 in July is a significant figure and it is a burden on families. Have the Department or Bus Éireann ever looked at the possibility of a stage payment process for the €650? Paying it up-front at the end of July is a fair amount to ask of people. Are we going to look at a process whereby that €650 could be paid on a monthly or a quarterly basis? Perhaps this process is happening at the moment but I have not been made aware of it. Perhaps the Minister of State will clarify this and tell us his views on the €650 payment.
I thank all the Senators for the information they have dispersed to me today. Some specific cases have been brought to my attention here. Rather than take these individually I would be delighted to meet with Senators on those particular issues. If we can facilitate it I am prepared to come back to Dublin over the next couple of weeks. I am, unfortunately, up to my eyeballs tomorrow and I know the Dáil is finishing up this week. If Senators could make themselves available next week, or the week after, I will come to Dublin to meet with Senators on the individual cases. I will try to have an official from the Department with me to see if we can work through the issues.
As I said earlier, since taking on the position of dealing with school transport I have been committed to making sure that every child who needs to be transported to school should have transport to school. If it was within my financial remit I would have every child, concessionary or otherwise, being brought to school at a reduced cost. There was an independent review and a comprehensive value for money review of the school transport scheme. I believe it was brought before the Dáil and the Oireachtas - I may be corrected in that if necessary but I believe it was - and this is where we are now operating from. We are also operating from a cost of €182 million annually.
I will go through some of the points made but first will give an overall view. It is a very significant scheme.
The scheme was put in place to deal with children who were eligible to be transported to the nearest school. We now have, which we did not have initially in dealing with the scheme, 25,000 concessionary children who we try to move every year as best as we can.
Senators have spoken about medical cards. We probably should look at that. Concessionary children, whether in possession of a medical card or not, must pay. That, itself, could be a significant cost. I am willing to have a look at that.
According to an assessment that was done, the unit cost of transporting each child has been estimated at €1,000 whereas the maximum charge is €350.
Senator Boyhan brought up the case of a Church of Ireland school. Concessions were made in 1967-1968 to allow for Church of Ireland children due to the dispersed nature of the schools. I take the point the Senator is making as whether it should matter whether a child is Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Catholic, etc.
I was asked if there are procurement issues. As the Senators will probably be aware, the procurement is done through EU legislation. If there are suggestions of inappropriate tendering or trading, they should be brought to the Department of Education and Skills and should be investigated. I have not been made aware of any inappropriate tendering. Like everyone else, I receive letters every week on why a person did not win a tendering process, but nobody has said it to me. However, there is an appropriate authority to bring that to.
On bus sizes, this is the difficulty. I meet Senators and Deputies who say the bus size is for nine and they ask can we not allow nine. Based on the cost of running the scheme, where would we set an end point? If we were to bring it down to seven, I can guarantee a Deputy or a Senator would say that the bus is for six so why not allow six. If we brought it down to three, they would ask that it be brought down to two. I take on board what was said about the bus size. We should look at that to see if we can find an appropriate bus that would take the seven, eight or ten, but ten is the number set down. I have given advice to individuals who have asked me to go back to the school to see they can get somebody else on the bus. If a bus has eight or nine and cannot reach ten, it can say to the Department it thinks it will have ten next year. We will not remove that bus and it gives them a year to see if they get ten.
Senators spoke about legislation and reviews and whether the legislation needs to be changed. That can be done by all of us. For instance, if, in the budget next year, someone was to say to me that I had an extra €20 million for school transport, I can guarantee that in respect of many of the issues we have, such as the distance, the buses, concessionary eligibility, special needs and those helping with special needs, there would be no difficulty in transporting everyone we had to transport. Unfortunately, I am working under criteria which were not laid down by me but are in legislation. I have endeavoured within that process to make as many changes as I can with concessionary eligibility and with buses. I understand there are difficulties with routes. There is no way a child with special needs should be on a bus for two hours, and I will look at that. This is the first I have heard of that. That would be unacceptable to me, if that is the case. If any Senator or his or her colleagues have an issue at any stage, or if they want to bring a family to meet me, I will meet them. Over the holiday period, I am prepared to come to Dublin to meet any Member of the Oireachtas who wants to meet me. I repeat the point that I am sympathetic to the families involved who have some difficulties, whether it be monetary difficulties, geographical difficulties with the buses or otherwise but I must apply the same approach nationally. I must apply the scheme according to the criteria laid down for me in the legislation.
I understand the concern about affordability. It would be disingenuous of me to say there are not families which will find it difficult to pay €350 or €650, or even €100, to have their child taken to school. That is also a budgetary matter. If I was given an extra €5 million, I could allay the charge on a child going to school, whether he or she is an eligible child or a concessionary child. Maybe legislation needs to be introduced in that regard, but one should bear in mind that would involve an cost additional to the €182 million we are already spending.
Reviews and the appeals were mentioned. We have had a look at that, and I am reviewing it at present. I spoke to the Department on how we review contentious issues and I expect it to come back to me in the next couple of months in that regard.
I have endeavoured to involve Oireachtas Members with a group I set up and to come back with ideas. I will take on board everything that has been said to me today. Can I change everything? It may not be in my remit to do that but everybody who has spoken today can meet me individually with whatever issues he or she has and I will endeavour to have somebody from the Department go through all these issues.
I was asked if we needed a complete review of the school transport scheme. I emphasise there are 116,000 children being transported twice a day, 12,000 of whom have special needs, and that the vast majority of families say it is a good scheme. Is it a bit expensive? That remains to be debated. The monetary value of the scheme is a debateable issue. However, the vast majority of families think it is a fairly good scheme. I ask Senators to consider what I said in my initial remarks, namely, that 116,000 children, including 12,000 children with special needs, are transported twice a day, that 5,000 special vehicles take children with special needs and that 100 million km are covered every year.
Of course, there will be difficulties and there are routes that should be reviewed. Mention was made of a route that has not been reviewed for ten years. That is unacceptable. I have spoken to Bus Éireann consistently about reviewing routes. If a route changes or if a mountain area becomes overgrown and the road becomes impassable, that should be looked at and reviewed. We try to do that.
Sometimes we can be critical of the Department. I suppose when I was in opposition, like many of the Senators, I could be like that. However, one of the Department officials is with me. The officials are really conscientious and compassionate about every issue. There is not an issue on which they do not sit down with families or individuals to talk it through but they also are restricted by the cost of the scheme and the criteria laid down in the scheme from 1967-1968 to 2011-2012 and the concessionary review. This is the difficulty we face.
I will take on board everything Senators have said. I will not walk out of here and say I got an easy ride today, no hassle and no argument. I believe passionately in this scheme and I try to do my best every day of the week to ensure every child, eligible or otherwise, gets to school.
As a parent of three daughters myself, I chose the school I wanted my daughters to attend because I thought it was the best school. If I had my way as Minister of State I would transport all children to the school which their parents wanted them to attend but that would involve an astronomical cost. If one looks at the schemes across Europe, the Irish scheme is regarded as being pretty good and pretty effective. Other countries have looked at the Irish scheme and at how it works. They continually look at how we run school transport and they are amazed at the amount of children that we transport.
I thank all the Senators for their contributions. I have written down everything. Ms McElduff from the Department is here. She is excellent. We will go through everything and we will meet all the Senators individually. They only have to contact me. They all have the office phone number. I give my guarantee that I will meet them on any individual case before the summer is out.