Friday 18 October 2019

Minister warns school extensions could be needed unless bus rules are relaxed

Minister Joe McHugh warned of disruption in enrolment. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Minister Joe McHugh warned of disruption in enrolment. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Education Minister Joe McHugh has warned his Cabinet colleague Paschal Donohoe that if he doesn't increase the budget for school buses, they will have to pay for new school buildings.

Mr McHugh said forcing post-primary pupils to attend their nearest school in order to avail of the service would disrupt enrolment patterns in areas around the country.

He suggested some schools would have to add extensions to cater for a student influx while others would be left with spare capacity.

The trade-off is outlined in correspondence between Mr McHugh and the Finance and Public Expenditure Minister, and their officials, released to the Irish Independent under Freedom of Information legislation. A battle over bus funding has been ongoing for months and, in the absence of a resolution, Mr McHugh last month relaxed the rules for the worst-hit areas, with his department picking up the €1m tab.

School buses carry two categories of passengers - 'eligible' pupils, who attend their nearest school, and those who apply for spare seats, known as 'concessionary' passengers.

The row has its roots in the introduction of more restrictive eligibility rules in 2012.

The ultimate aim was to bring in smaller buses but when it reached a point where that could happen, the Government baulked.

Buses carry primary and post-primary pupils, but the current tensions concern the post-primary sector. Total passenger numbers have grown from 104,432 to 105,505 since 2011, linked to rising enrolments.

But there has been a shift in the balance between eligible and concessionary passengers - at second-level, eligible numbers are down from 63,000 to 52,197, but concessionary tickets shot up from 542 to 14,370.

The big rise in concessionary passengers has been possible because the spare capacity is there once smaller buses are not introduced.

Mr McHugh and his officials argued there are historic reasons why, in a number of areas, pupils attend a school that is not their closest one.

But the department pointed out that 80pc of the 14,370 second-level concessionary passengers would be eligible for the bus if they attended their nearest school.

It provided an example of Rosslare, Co Wexford, from where pupils traditionally use the service to travel either to Wexford or Bridgetown.

If the 2012 changes were implemented in full, the 200 children using the bus as concessionary passengers to attend school in Wexford would be eligible for the bus to Bridgetown.

In April, a senior department official wrote: "If in the region of 200 children were to transfer immediately from Wexford to Bridgetown it would free up capacity in Wexford, but would cause immediate capacity pressure in Bridgetown.

"We are of the view that over time, it is possible that families will move to the school there they have eligibility for transport and, in this way, the number of concessionary pupils will fall but the numbers on transport will remain constant.

"This gradual shift will have implications for schools locally, including implications for accommodation in that we may create spare capacity in some areas while at the same time creating demand for accommodation in other areas."

It is understood other areas with a similar issue include Kilcock, Co Kildare, Edenderry and Tullamore in Co Offaly, Newbridge, Co Kildare and Hospital, Co Limerick.

Mr McHugh wrote to Mr Donohoe in July stating that a "shortage of concessionary places has given rise to significant disquiet among parents and public representatives".

But the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is holding to the line that the 2012 changes are implemented in full.

Mr Donohoe replied noting the increase in concessionary passengers due to the lack of implementation of all the Budget 2011 measures, including a decrease in bus size. "This calls into question the extent to which reform has been delivered and how aligned the current scheme is with stated policy. While your department has raised concerns about anomalies within the current system, these arise predominantly from this misalignment with stated policy."

He added that changes sought by Mr McHugh would lead to a further increase in demand.

Irish Independent

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