One in five pupils is at risk of losing seat on school bus
Urgent transport review called over plan for smaller buses in Programme for Government
One in five school pupils using school buses is at risk of losing their place.
Plans to reduce the size of vehicles are threatening the seats of thousands of students who use the service every day.
Smaller buses could result in many of what are known as 'concessionary' ticket holders - who currently number about 22,000 of the 113,000 pupils on school buses - losing out.
Concessionary passengers are those who are accommodated if there are spare seats on the bus once all "eligible" students get their place.
The threat to their places has emerged in a briefing document, prepared by Department of Education officials for new Education Minister Richard Bruton. They advised that given the ongoing growth in concessionary numbers, they were "working with Bus Eireann with a view to downsizing the buses required to transport eligible children which will commence on a phased basis in the coming school year 2016/17".
A scaling-down in bus size to cater for reduced numbers of eligible students would, inevitably, have an impact on how many seats might be available for concessionary passengers.
Rule changes introduced at the height of the financial crisis have led to a dramatic drop, from about 95pc to 80pc, in the proportion of school transport users who are deemed eligible for a seat.
However, many students who do not meet the new eligibility criteria have retained, or secured, a place as a concessionary passenger. Accordingly there has been a corresponding and spectacular rise in concessionary ticket holders - up from 4,800 in 2011 to 22,000.
While concessionary students pay for their passage, the School Transport Scheme is heavily subsidised by the State, which recovers less than €20m of its annual €175m cost from passengers.
The sharp downward trend in eligible students prompted discussions between the Department of Education and Bus Eireann about reducing the size of buses from next September.
However the reference they made to downsizing the vehicles set alarm bells ringing in the run-up to the formation of a new Government - as much discussion focussed on rural Ireland, where there is a particularly heavy reliance on school buses.
Moves were made to avert the immediate threat to the capacity of the service, with a decision to review the rules, charges and appeals process,
Subsequently the Programme for Governmen stated: "We will review the concessionary charges and rules element of the School Transport Scheme prior to Budget 2017. We will review the criteria and guidelines for the Transport Appeals Board."
Junior Minister John Halligan, a Waterford-based Independent TD, has been given responsibility for overseeing the review of the scheme, which is operated by Bus Eireann on behalf of the Department of Education.
A Department of Education spokesperson said Mr Halligan had asked for the review to commence, and any changes arising would be implemented from the 2017/18 school year.
Pending the outcome of the review, there is not expected to be any dramatic changes in the operation of the scheme.
Spare capacity on the school buses varies from year to year and between routes. Education sources insist that any changes in concessionary numbers this September are likely be in the hundreds - and the figures could go up, or down.
Formulating the policy
“As a consequence of these changes, the evidence is that a growing number of children are availing of school transport on a concessionary basis since 2011. Given this trend, the department is working in co-operation with Bus Éireann with a view to downsizing the buses required to transport eligible children, which will commence on a phased basis from the coming school year 2016/17.” Department of Education briefing document for new minister (spring 2016).
“We will review the concessionary charges and rules element of the School Transport Scheme prior to Budget 2017. We will review the criteria and guidelines for the School Transport Appeals Board.” Programme for Government (early May 2016).
“Minister Halligan has asked for this review to now commence and any changes arising from this will be implemented from the 2017/18 school year.” Department of Education spokesperson (late May 2016).