29 Jun 2022

Column: Seats will be lost over school bus scheme

Darren Hassett writes in this week's Kilkenny People...

Maria Davis and her son, Darragh

Maria Davis and her son, Darragh

The right question on the school transport scheme has finally been asked and the figures it has thrown up reveal a system that is not meeting the needs of thousands of families.

Something wasn’t quite right with parents in south Kilkenny paying taxis to take their children to school after those same students were denied a seat on a bus.

Why were they denied a seat? Put simply; because of where they live and where they’re going to school – they are not guaranteed a bus seat. That’s government policy.

Kudos to Sinn Féin’s Carol Nolan. Her question to the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, was for the number of pupils who have applied for concessionary school transport for the current school year, by county; the number who were granted and refused respectively.

That is the right question. In Kilkenny alone, the figures revealed parents made almost 1,400 applications for concessionary seating on buses to take their children to school with only 49 seats available in the county. Why would a parent apply for a concessionary ticket? The answer is because their son or daughter is not eligible for a bus seat as a consequence of the nearest school rule.

Students are only eligible for school transport if they reside not less than 4.8 kilometres from and are attending their nearest school.

So a parent applying for a concessionary ticket is making a last-gasp attempt at getting a seat on a bus to get their child to school.

The process has been described by Government opposition as a “lottery”.

Thousands applied, thousands were issued concessionary tickets, but supply was not even close to meeting demand and there were few winners. Nationwide there were 32,842 concessionary tickets applied for with 26,286 issued and 504 seats available on school buses for the 2017/18 academic year.

The figures provided reveal the scheme isn’t fair for everyone and this is the crucial point. There could be a litany of reasons a parent sends their child to one school and not another.

But what does it matter? Shouldn’t they just be given a bus seat to take that pressure off families. Haven’t parents enough difficulty with back to school?

School transport is managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department and Government will pat them on the back for carrying “almost 116,000 children in over 4,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country covering over 100 million kilometres annually”.

It’s not good enough.

In Mullinavat, people like Maria Davis and others, they’ve the added financial pressure of paying a taxi everyday to take their child to school. That should not be happening.

But when this was put to the Department and Bus Éireann, both were adamant that “routes will not be extended or altered, 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 for school transport and are travelling on a concessionary basis”.

In other words, no way, not possible, the policy does not allow allowances to be made.

I suggest, given that we now know how many thousands are affected, that the Government make allowances or just change the policy.

There were 25,782 students nationally who got concessionary tickets but were also left without a seat on a bus. Change the policy, get rid of concessionary tickets and just provide the service of transporting children to school fairly and equitably.

Failure to do that and - given the scale of the issue nationwide - Dáil seats will be lost over the issue.

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