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Topical Issue Debate - School Transport

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 755 No. 1

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Deputy Pearse Doherty: Information on Pearse Doherty Zoom on Pearse Doherty This is an issue that I and my party have been raising for quite a while, since it was announced in the 2011 budget by the Fianna Fáil Government of the time. The rule that will kick in from September 2012 means the catchment boundary areas, which determined eligibility for school transport for post-primary pupils, will cease and all post-primary students will be required to attend their nearest post-primary education centre, having regard to ethos and language. On the face of it, one would think there is nothing wrong with that because they should be going to their school. It does not make sense passing other schools and diverting students to schools that are further away. That sounds fine on paper, but when we look at the impact of this on the ground, it is a very different story.

In the last few weeks, people have started to focus on the fact that this cut, which was announced two years ago, will take effect in September. My office in Donegal and the local Sinn Féin councillor, Cora Harvey, have been inundated with people coming to us with issues in respect of these new criteria. A number of post-primary schools in the county will be affected by this, particularly in the region of Stranorlar. Finn Valley College and St. Columba’s school would have been within the catchment area of Castlefin, Doneyloop, Lifford and Liscooly but will no longer be and the students will now be asked to attend the school in Raphoe. A total of 22 students in Castlefin will go to Stranorlar and the same applies to ten students in Ballylast, four students in Donaghmore and Liscooly, two students in The Alt, as well as others in Lifford. Up to 40 students who traditionally would have gone to the schools in Stranorlar will be told they are no longer eligible for school transport, unless they decide to attend a different school.

Existing students will still be provided with transport from these areas. The child from Castlefin who is in first or fourth year will still be transported to school in Ballybofey, but the new student in first year will be told he or she has to travel to Raphoe. This is just one example and the position in other parts of the county is similar, including Creeslough, Milford and Pobalscoil Cloich Cheannfhaola. Many parents are very annoyed because next September some children in a family will be travelling to one school while the first year student will be travelling to another. Families are being split and bus pick-up points changed, with the result that parents will have to drive their children a long distance to pick-up points. The bus routes follow different timetables which has resulted in confusion and difficulties.

I am unsure as to how this represents a saving and ask if the lead-in time for the new arrangements is sufficient. I also ask the Minister to review the scheme and describe the impact of the change on schools in Stranorlar and parents and pupils.

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills (Deputy Sean Sherlock): Information on Sean Sherlock Zoom on Sean Sherlock I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. He has spoken about a specific area in County Donegal. The broader school transport scheme is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. It transports 113,000 children, including more than 8,000 with special needs, and 4,000 vehicles are used daily. It has been in operation for more than 40 years.

For the purposes of replying to the Deputy, the definition of school transport catchment boundaries has been the subject of many submissions and representations to the Department during the years. It is widely considered by many that the current catchment boundary areas do not reflect changed demographics. Changes to the post-primary school transport scheme were announced in budget 2011. One of these changes which will take effect from the com[75]mencement of the 2012-13 school year means that the use of the catchment area system as a means of determining eligibility will cease for all pupils entering a post-primary school as first entrants. The point made by the Deputy is that this creates the potential to split families.

By way of providing assistance and acknowledging County Donegal as a peripheral location, I suggest the Deputy either make direct representations to the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, who has responsibility for school transport or contact the school transport section of the Department. I acknowledge there will be anomalies under the scheme.

On the budgetary provision, there are no two ways about it, a budgetary saving will be made, but if it can be done in a way that tries to apply the principles of common sense and weed out anomalies so as to avoid the splitting of family members and if a special case can be made for the region to which the Deputy refers, my respectful suggestion to him is to make representations to the Minister.

Deputy Pearse Doherty: Information on Pearse Doherty Zoom on Pearse Doherty I welcome the invitation to make representations on behalf of the schools in question to the Department and the Minister of State and I will avail of the opportunity to do so.

The Minister of State referred to special circumstances in County Donegal. Ballybofey is situated close to the Border. I was very critical of the old catchment boundary system which was archaic and needed to be reviewed. However, the new system contains a number of anomalies which need to be rooted out. If the Department and the Minister were flexible, a common-sense solution could be found. It is in no one’s benefit to have family members split. While the argument could be made that the aim of the lead-in time was to allow parents to move children from one school to another, it is not possible or sensible to do this midstream in the case of a family with a junior and senior cycle student.

I refer to the impact of the scheme on the administration of schools. Some schools still do not know whether the 40 children will come to them because the children still have the option of not availing of the school transport scheme arrangements. The information on staffing needs was required to be submitted to the Department by last March, but schools are still unsure of the numbers of children who plan to attend. There is a lot of anger among parents. I will make representations to the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, who has direct responsibility for the school transport scheme to have it adapted.

Deputy Sean Sherlock: Information on Sean Sherlock Zoom on Sean Sherlock A recent survey showed that 82% of pupils attended their nearest post-primary school. I agree that there can be anomalies in the system which have been well documented by the Deputy. I will speak to the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, about the matter. I also advise the Deputy to make representations to the school transport section of the Department.

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