School bus scheme 'to expand' - but not in time for this year
Changes to the school transport scheme could be made in future years to try to help more students, Junior Minister John Halligan has said.
However, in spite of a backlash over the inability to provide a seat for every pupil this year, Mr Halligan reiterated he must work within the existing guidelines this year.
Some 759 students missed out on a bus space in 2016 and by the time all schools reopen later this week a similar number are expected to be left disappointed.
Mr Halligan has told the Irish Independent he understands the frustration felt by families and is open to making changes.
He believes there is scope to review the distance a child must live from the school to be considered eligible for a place and argues "a bit more compassion on pricing" should be shown to families on social welfare.
Currently a primary child must live 3.2km from their nearest school, while a post-primary pupil must live 4.8km away.
When all children meeting this criteria have been given a place, Bus Éireann offers leftover seats to other applicants. These are known as "concessionary" places.
"I have as many complaints from Fine Gael backbenchers as Fianna Fáil. I can't go outside the parameters. When I was in Opposition I was the same. I'd be saying this is not right," Mr Halligan said.
Independent TD Mattie McGrath is to meet Mr Halligan along with a group of concerned parents from Tipperary today.
He criticised how many parents have only learned in recent weeks that their children won't have a concessionary seat and he argued that Bus Éireann needs to provide bigger buses.
"It's very frustrating for families who have work and they're being told they can't get a school bus," Mr McGrath said.
"It's a huge worry with kids going back to school."
On the timing of when parents are finding out their children won't have seats, he said: "It comes down to the last hour and people could be on holidays or anything. This should be done long ago."
He also argued that bigger buses wouldn't add a significant cost to the Department of Education, saying: "It would be the same driver expenses, same diesel expenses, same roads."
However, a Bus Éireann spokesperson said that scheme is "heavily subsidised" and the rules state that larger buses can't be provided to cater for concessionary passengers at an extra cost to the State.
The company said the purpose of the scheme is "to support the transport to and from school of children who reside remote from their nearest school".
Responding to criticism of the last minute replies to many parents, Bus Éireann said: "We are issuing tickets for school transport places as late payments continue to be received and every effort is made to accommodate as many concessionary applicants as possible, where capacity allows."