Parents in Co Kerry will have to pay hundreds of euro more for private transport for children starting secondary school this week than for their older brothers and sisters who already have seats on the school bus.
Changes to transport rules mean students are only entitled to a place to their nearest school, even if they have siblings already travelling on school buses to another institution.
Susan Barrett, from near Ardfert in North Kerry, is the mother of one of at least 16 children with no place on the bus to Causeway Comprehensive School. The families are tendering for a private bus firm to take their children from a 16km radius around Ardfert, Abbeydorney, and Lixnaw.
Her daughter Breanne is going into third year at the school, which is about 14km from the family home. Susan and husband John sought unsuccessfully two years ago to enrol her in two schools in Tralee, about 10km from their home.
However, the school transport system told her she was only entitled to an automatic bus place to Tralee.
As there was no school bus serving Causeway going through Ardfert, families paid almost €1,100 per student for the first year to a private bus firm.
Breanne got a place on a new school bus route to Causeway Comprehensive last year as there was spare capacity, meaning the service costs €350 a year. However, her younger sister Emily, who started first year at the school yesterday, is not eligible for a place.
“We’re being told we are only eligible for a bus to Tralee, but we couldn’t get Breanne in there and it makes sense for her sister to go to the same school.
“For now, I’ll have to bring Breanne a mile to Ardfert at 7.30am because the route takes an hour, then I’ll be driving Emily to Causeway myself at 8.30am, and after that we have two others to get to primary school.”
Ms Barrett works three days a week and her husband works the family farm. She said the family has no problem paying the €350 annual fare for each of them on the school bus and the Department of Education and Bus Éireann should sit down with parents, principals and others to use local knowledge to organise things properly.
“This is causing huge inconvenience to parents, particularly those who are working and have difficulty collecting kids after 4pm,” she said.
Labour TD Arthur Spring is calling on party colleague Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, and his junior minister Ciarán Cannon, who oversees school transport, to push for local solutions that can be reached cost-effectively. He said buses with empty seats were taking children to second-level schools in Tralee and some slight changes to the buses might facilitate everybody.
The changes taking effect this autumn were announced in the Dec 2010 budget and a department spokesperson said schools and education partners were told about the changes last autumn.
“While the department understands that the terms of the new scheme may cause some inconvenience to families, at a time when this country is experiencing serious financial difficulties scarce resources need to be targeted equitably on a national basis,” she said.
Bus Éireann has told public representatives that it has no discretion in interpreting the department rules for the school transport scheme.
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