Monday 16 September 2019

McHugh defies Donohoe with €1m spend on buses

Action: Education Minister Joe McHugh wants to use bigger buses to address the problems
Action: Education Minister Joe McHugh wants to use bigger buses to address the problems
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Education Minister Joe McHugh is spending another €1m on the schoolbus service to cater for families worst hit this year by ongoing cost-saving measures - without approval from Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe.

The move comes amid a growing clamour over half-empty buses driving to and from schools in rural Ireland, while pupils have been refused seats because they don't meet the criteria for a ticket.

With many schools reopening later this week, thousands of parents are still in limbo wondering if their child will be granted a concessionary seat on their local school bus.

Up to last week, only 24,000 of 30,000 applications for a concessionary seat had been granted.

Pupils who are not eligible for the scheme may get a concessionary ticket if there is space on their local schoolbus.

Mr McHugh has been battling the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for a relaxation of rules to allow bigger buses to be used in order to accommodate more children, but without success.

Mr Donohoe's department is insisting on full implementation of the 2011 cost-­saving measures, which aim to reduce the number of pupils availing of school transport by 30,000.

However, with the new school year looming, Mr McHugh is going it alone and has instructed his officials to draw from existing Department of Education resources to deal with the worst affected cases.

The minister's spokesperson said Mr McHugh was taking a "common-sense" approach to dealing with the matter and had "wanted to take these actions months ago".

Part of the minister's rationale is that empty schoolbus seats force parents to drive their children to school, which is at odds with emerging Government policy on tackling climate change.

Mr McHugh and his junior minister for school transport, John Halligan, both rural TDs, are also acutely conscious of the business and employment opportunities the service provides in local areas.

The €1m will target areas where there is a significant concentration of pupils affected this year.

The benefit will be felt by second-level pupils who meet the distance criteria for the service and are attending their second closest school.

Usually, such pupils may have to rely on random selection for any available seats, but Mr McHugh is seeking to ensure that they all get a seat.

The cost of the schoolbus service, which is operated by Bus Éireann, has grown from €171m in 2011 to €200m last year, despite changes implemented in 2011.

Mr McHugh's spokesperson said the vast majority of the growth in spend on school transport was for children with special needs and "not on trying to accommodate more children where a bigger bus can be put on".

Pupils with special needs may have a door-to-door service in a taxi.

The cost for this element of the school transport scheme rose from €60m to €106m over the same period.

Irish Independent

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