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Getting kids to school is up to parents, not the State

The announcement of proposed changes to the School Transport Scheme (STS) has, unsurprisingly, been followed by a wave of parental indignation. School transport that had previously been provided 'free' (cost to the State, €1m per day) will now be charged at €50 per primary-school child (up to a maximum of €110 per family) and the cost for secondary-school children will peak at €650 per family, per year. Of even more concern to parents is the fact that up to 150 routes which service less than 10 children will be abolished and the distance criteria of two miles will be applied nationally.

Stories such as that of Kate Brosnan (Irish Independent, June 27), a mother of two who says she must either fork out up to €400 for her children's travel or leave her job, have been circulating all week.

On top of all the other 'stealth' charges and taxes with which we've been hit, one would have to have a heart of Thatcherite steel not to be sympathetic to some parents who will now have to make their own arrangements to deliver their children to school.

Or would one?

I got two answers to this question during the week -- and you're not going to like them. I didn't either. The truth hurts.

The first was given to me by the seven-year-old. As we sat on the public bus (we are a one-car family) heading to his school for the last day until autumn, he excitedly talked of everything that he was going to do over the holidays.

"You're starting Cul Camp (excellent GAA summer camp for kids) next Monday with your sister," I reminded him.

(That would give me nearly three hours free to work each day -- better than nothing.) He made a face. He wanted to spend the first week of his hols lounging on the couch, watching telly.

"Do you think I spent seven years studying at university just so I could have the pleasure of staying home watching the Disney Channel with you?" I asked.

"Well, yes," grinned the little bugger. "Otherwise, why did you bother having me?"

Okay, he has a point. I'm not 100 per cent with him on it, but there's a germ of damning truth in there. My child. My responsibility.

The second answer came via a job opportunity I would give my eye teeth for. Apart from the fact that it would mean a five-day working week and the salary would not be enough to provide adequate childcare, it was a dream.

I talked to family, friends and feminists who believe that a woman's place is most certainly NOT within the home. Their answer? I'd be mad to do it.

The juggling/negotiations/compromises involved when I have a job or deadline are exhausting. Favours are called in and returned, Granny is often called upon to cross Dublin Bay to cope with an emergency.

Like so many of my female (and some male) friends with small kids, I work around them, under them, sometimes beside them while they sleep. I'm lucky I can do that. But the bottom line?

Caring for primary-school children and working a 40-hour week is impossible unless it's a job that enables you to afford full-time help.

Mum extraordinaire Miriam O'Callaghan admitted this herself recently when she said: "I am incredibly lucky, I worked my butt off all my life but I've a very good job with a very good income and I have the same two women who have helped me since 1997."

We can argue that we therefore have a very good cause to ask the State to supply cheap childcare, so mothers can work if they choose. Many other countries do. But again, the harsh truth is that we are now further away from that ideal than we were 10 or 20 years ago.

In this country, if you have children, you, the parent, are their primary carer. After the parent comes the family and local community and only after that, the State.

So apologies, but if you choose to live in the countryside, both work and depend on the State to deliver your children to and from school (for free), think again. Do what everyone else does: car pool, walk, cycle, get a group together and hire a bus.

What's that you say? It's your right? As a parent of a school-going child?

There has been much discussion about the 'rights' of parents and children in the past few week, not just because of the new STS rules, but also because of Education Minister Ruairi Quinn's dynamic (in comparison to his predecessors) approach to the problem of majority-Catholic patronage in our schools.

Despite the advice of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin that 50 per cent of primary schools should be in the hands of other patrons, the powerful Catholic School Partnership argues that 10 per cent is more realistic. It looks like Quinn has a fight on his hands. He has a powerful lobby against him, but he also has the goodwill of many devoted parents.

Currently, I spend up to four hours per day delivering and collecting both children from their primary schools. The cost of public transport is around €1,000 per year.

I'm not asking for a medal -- my kids, my choice, my responsibility etc. One attends the excellent local Catholic school for girls and the other the 'local' (it's bloody miles away) Educate Together.

At present, there is little hope of them gaining places in the only secondary multi-denominational within travelling distance, as demand for it has sky-rocketed. We may have to look further afield.

Where is the child's 'right' to be educated according to his/her religion or ethos? It doesn't exist -- beyond Catholic schools, Protestant schools have been decimated by the removal of their special funding -- unless parents take responsibility themselves and make it happen.

The best example of parents getting together and 'helping themselves' in the best interests of their children, despite a marked lack of State assistance, is the emergence of these extremely successful Educate Together schools.

Thankfully, despite extraordinary resistance from former ministers, Quinn has given the green light for the introduction of Educate Together schools at secondary level.

Like the primary schools, it's envisioned that many children will travel great distances to attend them. They most definitely won't have a free bus service attached and if one is needed, the parents will organise it without complaint.

Our children. Our choice. Our responsibility. Tough, true and worth the sacrifices.

Sunday Independent