Thursday 19 September 2019

Thousands to miss out on school bus seat despite unused spots

Talks ongoing: Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Talks ongoing: Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Hugh O'Connell and Kevin Doyle

More than 2,700 children were left without a place on the Government's school transport scheme despite there being thousands of unused spots on routes across the country.

A shortage of school bus places has left thousands of parents in limbo with just a fortnight to the new school term.

While more than 30,000 children are understood to have applied for so-called concessionary tickets on school buses, so far Bus Éireann has only issued 24,000.

Junior Minister John Halligan, who has responsibility for the school transport scheme, has claimed that Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe and his officials are blocking a solution that would cost only €4m. Mr Donohoe's department says talks are ongoing to find a solution.

A review of the scheme by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform found that while almost 117,500 students availed of places on school buses - nearly a third of them concessionary - in the 2017/2018 school year, there were more than 56,000 unused spaces on these services.

The Department of Education has now confirmed that in 2017, 1,030 children who applied for tickets on a concessionary basis did not get one, while last year a total of 1,680 children who applied for tickets on a concessionary basis failed to get one. This was 2,710 children in two years.

Some €200m per year is spent on the scheme which has increased in cost by almost 17pc since 2011.

Children qualify automatically if they live 3.2km from their nearest primary school, or 4.8km from a secondary school.

However, more than 30,000 have applied for concessionary tickets this year, whereby they can get a seat once all pupils who automatically qualify for a place are allocated a ticket.

The concessionary element of the scheme, while vital for thousands of families across the country, has proved controversial.

Almost 100 routes are operating without catering for a single eligible child. Instead, the buses are occupied by children on a discretionary basis.

Concessionary tickets are issued on condition that they do not cost the State any money. This means additional or larger vehicles will not be introduced to carry children who are not automatically eligible for school transport.

In 2017 there were more than 26,700 children accommodated on a concessionary basis, while in 2018 the figure was 28,500.

"Throughout the course of the school year Bus Éireann continue to issue tickets and allocate seats to pupils once capacity exists on any given route," a Department of Education spokesperson said.

Irish Independent

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