Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Ceisteanna (37)

Kevin O'Keeffe

Ceist:

37. Deputy Kevin O'Keeffe asked the Minister for Education and Skills the plans he has put in place to review the school bus transport scheme in view of the serious difficulties that arise with the scheme each year and, in particular, in the lead-up to the commencement in September of the academic year 2019-2020. [47096/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Education)

I was not delayed actually. I was going by the numbers and I note another Member who tabled a question is not here.

We may be entering into a period of the calm before the storm, as the Minister of State will be aware. Every year for the past few years, and even prior to my time in the House, I would say the Minister of State's Department has been inundated with requests sought for last-minute adjustments to secure places on school buses for children who want to attend the school of their preferred choice in their catchment area. Can he not be more upfront and put a scheme in place on the basis that Bus Éireann, in conjunction with the Department of Education and Skills, would straight away seek to know the areas where it is expected there would be pupils enrolled for the upcoming 2019-2020 academic year?

I thank the Deputy for his question. As I have said on a number of occasions, school transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of my Department. In the 2018-2019 school year, more than 117,500 children, including 13,000 children with special educational needs, were transported in 5,000 vehicles every day to primary and post-primary schools at a cost running at more than €200 million in 2018.

Growth in the number of children availing of special educational needs transport is a notable development in recent years. The cost of special educational needs transport has grown consistently from some €58 million in 2012 to more than €106 million in 2018. School transport provision for children with special educational needs now accounts for more than 50% of the total cost of the scheme despite catering for some 12% of the overall number of children transported.

The purpose of the school transport scheme is, having regard to available resources, to support the transport to and from school of children who reside remote from their nearest school. Children are generally eligible for school transport if they satisfy the distance criteria and are attending their nearest school as determined by the Department in conjunction with Bus Éireann, having regard to the ethos and the language.

All children who are eligible for school transport and who completed the application process on time have been accommodated on school transport services for the 2019-2020 school year and, in that respect, no serious difficulties have arisen for those who are eligible for school transport. Children who are not eligible for school transport, as the Deputy will be aware, may apply for transport on a concessionary basis and are facilitated where spare seats exit.

I recently sanctioned an additional €1 million for the school transport budget to allow for temporary alleviation measures to increase temporarily the capacity for concessionary seats on the post-primary transport scheme for the 2019-2020 school year. I also announced a review of the school transport scheme with a view to ensuring funds are being spent in the most effective way to meet the objectives of the scheme. The terms of reference and scope of the review are being considered by my officials and it is expected a cross-departmental steering group led by my Department will be established. I hope to meet representatives from all parties in the Dáil to talk about what we plan to do in the review of the scheme.

I thank the Minister of State for his interest in the matter. I acknowledge he has a budget within which he must work, but at the same time each child of schoolgoing age is entitled to have proper and fair education in a school of their parents' choice where they believe their child can learn more. There are areas where families have an historic attachment to a school. Previous legislation changed that. For example, pupils in west Waterford might have to go another school when there is a school nearer. Families have historic attachments to schools. Also, all schools do not provide the same curriculum. Parents might want their children to attend a school because of the curriculum in place in that school.

Most schools have open days for registration for incoming pupils for the following year. Should a representative of Bus Éireann not attend those open days and spell out to parents whether their children will be eligible or considered for a school bus place, especially when they come from a rural area? Perhaps the Minister of State should consider having a representative of Bus Éireann on site in schools that have an open day for the enrolment of new students.

I wish to cover a few issues in response. I do not set out the routes nor do I designate them. The routes are set by Bus Éireann, as I do not have the capacity to do that. I would remind people there is a rural grant scheme in place for those who are eligible for school transport where a bus may not be available. The issue is very clear. When I took over as Minister of State in the Department of Education and Skills, with school transport being part of my portfolio, my job was to make sure that all eligible children at primary and post-primary level, and all children with special educational needs who are eligible for school transport, get it. Right now this month there is no eligible child, as far as I am aware, anywhere in the country who has paid on time who is not getting school transport or not getting the rural grant. Certainly, there is no child with special educational needs who is not getting school transport. I would not say the scheme is bursting at the seams but we have already invested €200 million this year. We know that next year there will be more eligible children and more children with special educational needs. The money will be made available next year for those children at a major cost again.

The number of children with concessionary places prior to my becoming Minister of State was 300 and now the number is 30,000. We carry 26,000 children with concessionary places. Within the scheme, all eligible children and all children with special educational needs are being carried, which is the directive I was given. The legislation lays down that I as Minister of State do that and I am, or my Department is, doing that.

I appreciate the Minister of State's response. There is another way to view this. In terms of the school building programme, his senior Minister, Deputy McHugh, would not decide to approve the building of a new school in Midleton until he knew the projected figures. The same should apply to school transport provision. In terms of projections, one route might need a bus and a minibus and two years down the road an additional bus might be needed. We should be more flexible in making buses available.

I thank Bus Éireann because it tries to facilitate its customers as much as possible within the permitted limits. The Minister of State may say everyone has been looked after but I can assure him there are people who have not been. He will be aware I raised a Topical Issue debate matter recently in respect of the Gaelscoil in Mallow, which has been disenfranchised. I know the Minister of State managed to meet them and what they hope for the 2020-2021 academic year is that everybody will be very happy with him.

All children who are eligible have school transport. There is a difficulty with some children who were eligible but who did not pay on time. The difficulty is that Bus Éireann has no choice in this matter. If children do not apply on time, it fills the bus. When I referred to all eligible children, I meant all those who have paid, and I believe I said that.

Regarding new school builds, we try to project between two to three years into the future the schools that will be built in different areas and where the transport services will be needed. We speak regularly to Bus Éireann on that. If the Deputy considers schools that were built five, ten or 15 years ago or up to a few years ago, he will note buses are running from those schools. We make sure of that. It can sometimes take a little time. The Deputy must remember that not everybody who has a bus or a taxi wants to use it for school transport. Not everybody who has a taxi wants to use it to bring children with special needs to school. Every year, we spend weeks, sometimes until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., working with officials to get carers, Garda clearance certificates and so on. My remit is to get every eligible child and every child with special educational needs a place on school transport.

My officials tell me that is the case.