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Jennifer Whitmore The school transport system is not serving the communities that need it

The Social Democrats TD says the school transport scheme is wholly unfit for purpose and a rethink is needed.

THERE IS EVERY reason to fear that hundreds of families will face a repeat of last year’s school transport crisis when the new term commences in the autumn.

The omens are far from good. In some rural areas, problems that marked the start of the 2023/24 academic term last August – including driver shortages, last minute cancellations and promised bus routes that never materialised – still persist. With applications to the School Transport Scheme set to open at the end of this month, this hardly inspires confidence.

In my Wicklow constituency, more than 50 families who successfully applied to the scheme and paid for a place on a school bus for their child for the current term are still waiting for services – six months after they were supposed to commence. Bus Éireann, which runs the School Transport Scheme on behalf of the Department of Education, recently confirmed to me that there are three services in the county yet to become operational.

The B9212 was supposed to cater for Wicklow post-primary schools and carry up to 53 students but it has yet to enter service. Five students with additional needs, who require taxis to get them to school, have also not been facilitated under the scheme. And despite hopes that services to Marino Community Special School in Bray would resume, there has been no progress made to date. 

Families across the region have been affected in places like Ashford, Roundwood, Laragh and Dunlavin – all rural areas where children would be travelling to schools in the main towns. 

Widespread issue

While Wicklow has been badly affected, many other counties – including Kildare, Meath, Louth, Galway, Limerick and Cork – have also had to bear the brunt of the transport scheme’s shortcomings.

The Government has previously attempted to put a positive spin on the numbers. When the school term began last August, it pointed out that 133,000 pupils had so far been issued with tickets under the scheme, and that only 1.5% of applicants had experienced disruption to their transport. However, more than six weeks later, it was reported that around 1,200 children remained without a school bus place, including 100 with special educational needs.

Acknowledging there were issues with the operation of the scheme, Education Minister Norma Foley said at the time that driver and bus shortages were among the main factors. But it was the appalling lack of communication that added insult to injury. Many parents only received an email on the Friday before schools were set to reopen the following Monday to inform them that their child’s bus would not be showing up. This left hundreds of families scrambling to find alternative ways to get their children to school, at ridiculously short notice.

The shortage of school bus places has had a devastating impact on those affected. Many parents have had to take unpaid or annual leave so they can drive their children to school. Some have had to quit their jobs. It has taken a serious toll on family life and household finances. In some cases, bus routes which had been in operation suddenly disappeared without warning. It resulted in one 10-year-old girl being left stranded by the side of the road when her bus failed to arrive.

Supports

An eligible child for whom no transport service is available may be entitled to a Remote Area Grant. However, as this is only paid at the end of the school year and has a daily limit of just over €5, it is an overcomplicated system and an insufficient amount to cover actual transportation costs for families.

From a climate action perspective, the School Transport Scheme should be an easy win for the Government. At a time when we are looking to take more cars off the road to reduce our carbon emissions, parents are instead being forced to make unnecessary round trips of up to 50km a day. 

In its current form, the School Transport Scheme is not fit for purpose and needs a complete overhaul. A review of the scheme commenced in 2021, but the final report has yet to see the light of day.

It has been deeply frustrating trying to find out if measures have been put in place to prevent a reoccurrence of problems with the scheme. Last month, I asked Minister Foley about training programmes for those wishing to become school bus drivers. She simply responded that as 90% of school bus services are contracted locally, the recruitment and training of drivers is the responsibility of each contractor.

The minister has adopted a hands-off approach to the operation of the School Transport Scheme and is letting Bus Éireann take the lion’s share of the blame for its failings. It is clear that we need to see the establishment of a new national school bus service that is removed from the control of the Department of Education and placed under the remit of the Department of Transport. There should also be a major recruitment drive to attract part-time drivers in rural areas, perhaps even farmers who are looking for additional sources of income. 

Time is running out. The Department of Education has between now and September to get its act together. Parents and children must not be abandoned again. 

Jennifer Whitmore is a Social Democrats TD for Wicklow and is the party’s spokesperson on children.  

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