Children with special needs are unable to attend the school deemed most suitable for them as they do not qualify, under strict rules, for school transport.
The difficulties for children with special needs accessing transport were among issues raised with TDs and senators during a meeting to discuss the Department of Education’s €182m-a-year school transport scheme.
Most of the 15,000 special educational needs (SEN) students attending special schools, or special classes in mainstream schools, are among the 116,000 children carried daily by buses and taxis under the system.
However, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) told the Oireachtas Education Committee most of the small number of cases where difficulties arise relate to rules dictating that a student can only avail of the school transport scheme if they are enrolled in the nearest school which is or can be resourced to meet their needs.
The council’s role is to confirm to the Department of Education that the school being attended is the nearest such school, but NCSE head of operations Sé Goulding said its staff is not allowed use any discretion.
It previously advised that transport be provided for children with complex special needs to alternative special schools and special classes where the HSE is unable to provide the necessary therapy supports for a student at their nearest school.
The National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education (NAB-MSE), representing more than 200 mainstream and special schools, also flagged problems about the nearest-school rule.
“This can cause problems when parents consider that the nearest special school best suits the needs of the student with SEN and there is another school nearer to the child’s home. This may mean that the student is not eligible for school transport and that can be difficult,” said NABMSE general secretary Breda Corr.
Department of Education school transport official Richard Dolan told the committee the numbers availing of the SEN transport scheme have increased from 8,317 to 11,650 between 2012 and 2016.
This has seen the costs, including grants, payments to contractors and funding for escorts, rise by almost half from €57.7m to €83.5m in the same period.
Most of the 410 services introduced by Bus Éireann last year were for children with SEN, said the company’s acting CEO, Ray Hernan.
National Parents’ Council-Primary chief executive Áine Lynch said parents of SEN pupils have contacted the organisation about their children with SEN being deemed ineligible for transport to the school which they believe fits their child’s needs best, because of the nearest-school rule.
“While NPC understands that the scheme can not be completely open-ended to accommodate all parents’ wishes, more flexibility in eligibility criteria would assist better decisions being made in the interests of children,” she said.
The hearing was attended by a number of TDs who were not committee members to point out the frustrations of families over the lack of flexibility in the broader school transport system.
Particular difficulties were highlighted over children being deemed ineligible to attend schools with which there are family, sporting and other strong associations.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved