Monday 19 August 2019

Donohoe's department 'rails against fixing school bus crisis'

Minister claims €4m ‘over a few years would steady the system’

Discussions: Paschal Donohoe is in talks with the Education Minister. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Discussions: Paschal Donohoe is in talks with the Education Minister. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe and his officials have "railed" against efforts to provide school transport for every child who needs it, a fellow minister has claimed.

Minister of State John Halligan, who is responsible for the school transport scheme, has told the Irish Independent a looming crisis can be averted if the Department of Education is allowed to spend an extra €4m from its own resources.

Thousands of parents are in limbo with just two weeks to the new term because of a shortage of school bus places.

More than 30,000 children are understood to have applied for so-called 'concessionary' tickets. To date, Bus Éireann has only issued 24,000.

Mr Halligan admits "the system is creaking at the seams" but says a solution that includes using larger buses is on the table. He claimed the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) has actually argued that he should be cutting bus services rather than increasing them.

"Is there a big row going on with DPER? Well, I want the money. I'm being told I can't have it and I'm not accepting that," the minister said.

"They are railing against us. My view is that for another €4m over a few years it would steady the system."

Mr Halligan said the biggest problems are at post-primary level but he doesn't want to stop any child getting a bus to school.

"I was told to withdraw buses or charge parents more. I've stopped that," he said.

Around €208m has been allocated for the school transport scheme which is operated by Bus Éireann in 2019/2020.

It will be used by more than 117,500 children, including more than 13,000 with special educational needs.

A majority of children qualify automatically on the basis that they live at least 3.2km from their nearest primary school, or 4.8km from a secondary school.

Once these pupils have been catered for, any remaining seats on a bus are allocated using a lottery and categorised as 'concessionary'.

These places are subject to a number of conditions, including that additional or larger vehicles will not be introduced for children who are not automatically eligible for school transport.

According to Mr Halligan almost half of the budget is now spent ensuring special needs students are given suitable transport options. This can often involve supplying extra carers.

He said the overall scheme, which involves 5,000 buses, is "excellent value for money" and works for 99.9pc of families.

"There's nothing worse than leaving children behind when it comes to school transport.

"I've been advocating for a while that a few million euro would take all of the concessionaries for the next few years. It would give us time to look at where we are at with the scheme," the Waterford TD said.

In response to Mr Halligan's claims, the DPER confirmed Mr Donohoe is in discussions with the senior minister in the Department of Education, Joe McHugh, "in relation to a proposal to modify the criteria for eligibility under the school transport scheme".

"There are a number of outstanding issues in relation to the proposal including the costs involved, value for money and the wider delivery of the school transport scheme. Discussions are ongoing at official level between the two departments," the statement said.

Irish Independent

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