School bus service at a crossroads and there is no easy choice of route
Published 01/06/2016 | 02:30
Traversing more than 6,500 routes and 93 million kilometres of Irish roads every year, school buses are a feature of daily life in every parish in rural Ireland. Even after changing the eligibility rules in 2011, they carry 113,000 primary and post primary pupils to and from school every day.
The rule changes were part of cost-saving and revenue-increasing measures implemented in an effort to contain the ever-rising cost of the service.
Changes included the introduction of a charge for primary school children, and they also made it harder for pupils to be eligible for a seat.
Thousands lost eligibility status, or never gained it, but as long as the size of the buses didn't change, they could continue to be carried as a concessionary passenger - once there was a spare seat.
The measures produced the desired effect and the overall cost of the school transport scheme this year, about €175m, compares with €186m in 2010, the year before they were introduced.
However, against any savings or revenue boosts, the school transport budget is under pressure on other fronts. The cost of meeting increased demand from children with special educational needs - a tailored service for one special needs child can be the same as providing a minibus for 14 others - has offset the savings achieved in the scheme generally. About 40pc of the overall cost relates to children with special needs.
There has also been an increase in the number of children exempt from paying the charge because they hold a medical card.
The budgetary measures implemented in 2011 and 2012 have pretty well run their course and offer little scope for additional savings, so the Department of Education has obviously been exploring other ways to contain costs.
Smaller buses and, ultimately, fewer passengers on this heavily subsidised service could yield big savings and was a logical step for the accountants.
But, at what cost to a Government that is promising to revitalise rural Ireland?
If the review being overseen by Junior Minister John Halligan is to avoid throwing pupils off buses, higher charges could be the equally unpalatable alternative to help the service pay its way.