Wednesday 21 March 2018

School bus system in 'chaos' - but minister says he is powerless

Junior minister John Halligan,TD. Photo: Tom Burke
Junior minister John Halligan,TD. Photo: Tom Burke

Kevin Doyle and Cormac McQuinn

The parents of as many as 2,000 children are still waiting to see if they will get seats on school buses this year amid claims that the system is in "chaos".

As schools begin the new term this week, Junior Education Minister John Halligan said he was powerless to solve the issue this year.

Mr Halligan said legislative change and substantial funding would be needed to provide more buses to provide extra seats for pupils who weren't automatically eligible.

"You hold your head in your hands sometimes as a minister. You get in there and you find it's so difficult to change things," he said.

Mr Halligan is to hold talks with affected families from Tipperary and Laois. "I'm not going to bring people up to an office and pretend I can do things that I can't," he told the Irish Independent. "I just can't change it and I wish I could."

The issue of bus places has become fraught in recent years after a 2011 change in how they're allocated. The previous arrangement involved school catchment areas. Now seats are allocated based on the nearest school to a pupil's home.

In total, more than 114,000 children avail of school transport in rural areas, with some 24,000 travelling on a concessionary basis at an overall cost of €182m last year.

Concessionary passengers are those who are accommodated on buses if there are spare seats once all "eligible" students get their place.

They are allocated tickets at random and pay for their passage. To date in 2017, there are 25,345 applicants who have paid for concessionary places in the hope they will secure seats.

Of these, 23,275 had received tickets, according to figures released late last week, leaving more than 2,000 applicants still unsure if they will get a place.

Unsuccessful applicants - of which there were 759 last year - get refunds and must make alternative arrangements.

Bus Éireann provides the service. A spokeswoman said the availability of concessionary tickets may vary each year and cannot be guaranteed for the duration of a child's secondary education.

Fianna Fáil's education spokesman Thomas Byrne said the current system left parents "in limbo" just days before the start of the school term.

"What we're seeing is organised chaos," he said, arguing that the rules based on distance to the nearest school were "splitting up" rural communities and families, with parents sending younger siblings to different schools and children being separated from primary school friends. Mr Byrne has sought a meeting with Mr Halligan to discuss the situation, but said that ultimately Fianna Fáil wanted a return to allocating school bus places by school catchment area.

Mr Halligan insisted the school transport system worked for "99.9pc of people" and every eligible child gets a seat but said it was not set up to cater for concessionary passengers.

"I'm very uncomfortable if a child can't get on the scheme. It comes down to money. It's a huge cost," he said, adding that he had been "inundated" with correspondence on the issue in the last two weeks, personally replying to many letters.

He said €187m was due to be spent this year and he would seek an increased budget if he was still in government next year. Mr Halligan said he believed there was scope to review the distance a child must live from the school to be considered eligible.

He said that, "against advice" from his officials, he had stopped buses being taken off routes this year where the number of eligible children had fallen below the minimum threshold for the route.

Q&A: Concessionary tickets issue explained

Who is automatically eligible for the school transport scheme?

For primary school children it's those who live at least 3.2km from their nearest school. For secondary school students the minimum distance is at 4.8km from their nearest school. Ethos and language are taken into account.

What is a concessionary ticket?

If there are spare seats on a school bus when all of the eligible students are catered for, Bus Éireann uses a random selection process to allocate seats to children whose parents sign up to pay an annual charge. Payment of the charge does not guarantee a seat and the sum is refunded if the application is unsuccessful. Bus Éireann says routes won't be extended or altered, nor will larger vehicles be introduced, or extra trips take place, to provide more concessionary seats. According to the rules: "No additional State cost will be incurred to cater for ineligible children." Bus Éireann also says that the availability of concessionary transport may vary from year to year and cannot be guaranteed for the duration of a child's education.

How many students get concessionary tickets?

The total for last year was around 24,000 out of approximately 116,000 children using the school transport service. Parents must apply for concessionary tickets by the last Friday in April each year.

Why is it an issue now?

Parents who have made unsuccessful applications for concessionary tickets are learning that they will have to make alternative arrangements. In recent years, TDs around rural Ireland have reported being inundated with contacts from parents who are concerned that their children have been refused seats at the end of August.

How many people does this affect?

Figures provided to the Irish Independent show that 759 students were refused concessionary seats in 2016 after all of the spares were allocated. More than 2,000 applicants have yet to learn if they will get school bus seats for this year.

Do parents have any options if their child is refused a concessionary seat?

Yes. They can appeal to the independent School Transport Appeals Board. The appeals must be made within 28 days of the date on the decision letter from Bus Éireann.

Irish Independent

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