Monday 19 August 2019

School transport crisis looms with bus system leaving thousands in limbo

Councillor Malcolm Byrne is working with 20 affected families. Picture: Conor McCabe
Councillor Malcolm Byrne is working with 20 affected families. Picture: Conor McCabe
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

A school transport crisis is looming just weeks ahead of the new term. Thousands of parents are in limbo about whether or not their child will get a place on the school bus due to a shortage of spaces.

The problem is well-known within the Department of Education but strict rules governing how seats are allocated will not be changed.

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

Parents have begun receiving letters in recent days, informing them that their child will not get a bus place for the year ahead. Others are continuing an anxious wait to find out whether the crisis will hit their school.

Fianna Fáil councillor Malcolm Byrne, who is working with 20 families affected in Wexford, said the situation was intolerable.

"I'm still mystified as to why this is a problem every year. The problem is that it [the scheme] is not student- focused and does not provide sufficient flexibility to meet demand. To tell families three weeks before the start of the school year that they don't have transport is ridiculous," he told the Irish Independent.

Many of those receiving rejection letters from Bus Éireann did qualify for a bus ticket in previous years.

The School Transport Scheme is managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the department. Toward the end of the 2018/19 school year, there were more than 117,500 children, including over 13,000 with special educational needs, transported in over 5,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools. The routes cover more than 100 million kilometres annually.

A majority of children qualify automatically for bus transport 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 random selection process. Parents have to pay the €100 fee up front when applying for them.

Concessionary transport is subject to a number of conditions, including that routes will not be extended or altered, and additional vehicles will not be introduced, nor will larger vehicles or extra trips using existing vehicles be provided to cater for children who are not eligible.

The State is not prepared to take on any additional cost, even if there are enough children to fill an extra bus.

In yesterday's 'Sunday Independent', Education Minister Joe McHugh suggested the issue could be resolved with a €4m investment, but his efforts were being blocked by the Department of Public Expenditure.

Yet his junior minister John Halligan, who is responsible for the scheme, said in a Dáil reply at the end of July: "There are no proposals to revert to the criteria for the scheme which were in place pre-2011."

The Irish Independent sent a number of queries about the scheme to the Department of Education and Bus Éireann in recent days. Both replied with strikingly similar statements.

They noted that, to date, 87,000 tickets have been issued for the new term and this number continues to increase on a daily basis.

Of this figure, 63,000 tickets have been issued to eligible pupils and 24,000 to children who are ineligible and availing of transport on a concessionary basis.

The final numbers for the 2018/19 school year were in excess of 75,000 eligible tickets and 28,000 concessionary tickets issued.

A spokesperson for the department said the scheme was "demand-led" and cost €200m last year.

Bus Éireann said it was "making every effort to ensure seats are allocated to as many applicants as possible across all routes".

Irish Independent

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