Families run off the road

New bus charges are preventing pupils from attending the schools of their choice, while some routes may be stopped, says Áilín Quinlan

MARY-Rose Canty thought she could rely on the school bus. She was wrong.

Mary-Rose and her husband, Kevin Flanagan, have four boys , Tom (10), JJ (8), Dan (7) and Hugh (4), who is starting school in September.

When the three older boys started school, they travelled on the bus for free.

This year, because of charges introduced in Sept 2011, the family’s bill is €220.

Although the three oldest Flanagan boys are eligible for school transport, Hugh is not because of a new ruling coming into operation in September.

Under this regulation, if Hugh wants free bus transport, he has to attend his nearest school. This does not apply to his brothers.

Ms Canty wanted her children to attend her former alma mater, the Bishop Galvin Central School in Newcestown, Co Cork, five miles from the family home.

Hugh will be allowed to travel as a concessionary pupil as long as the bus has space for him, and as long as it runs, his mother says — but therein lies another worry.

A regulation implemented last September requires a minimum of 10 eligible pupils to justify a school bus service.

Ms Canty says: “We’ve been told that there will probably not be a bus for Dan and Hugh for the senior years of their schooling, because there won’t be enough eligible students to justify its existence.”

Ms Canty fears the quota required to justify a school bus service for the area could be increased.

If the boys lose the bus, Ms Canty and her husband may have to move the children to another school, or have to take over the responsibility for transport to Bishop Galvin School.

School principal Donie Keane says the new restrictions are a “surreptitious” attempt by the Government to gradually phase out the service, which caters for 50,000 primary school pupils and 64,000 post-primary students, including 8,000 children with special educational needs. The service costs €170m.

“Children in city areas have all sorts of public transport by which to get to school, but in rural areas this is a very serious issue,” says Mr Keane, a teacher for more than 30 years and principal of the 208-pupil Bishop Galvin Central School in Newcestown for 12 years.

“From Sep 1 of this year, some junior infants who would have been eligible under the rules are no longer entitled, because, in some cases, there are schools closer to them than ours.

“Their brothers and sisters would have been attending our school via the transport service as a result of school amalgamations some 40 years ago — but now we have a situation where some children from a family will automatically be entitled to transport to our school, but their junior infant sibling will not.”

“We lost two families this year, because they weren’t eligible for the bus service and I believe that, down the line, we will lose the bus service altogether.

“As children leave the school, there will be less and less children eligible for the bus service. I estimate that in four years’ time we will not have the 10 children which are now required to justify a bus.”

The end result of all these restrictions at primary level, says the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, could be that some schools will lose pupils, and face a future of empty classrooms, while others, who are not geared up for a big influx, will need expensive extensions to cope with increased numbers.

“This is an attempt to save money on the school transport scheme, but, like many other cost-cutting measures, there could be unintended consequences which will end up increasing costs,” said a spokesman.

The new rules, he said, could also result in an increase in the number of private cars on roads, at a time when fuel costs are rocketing — while increased traffic congestion outside schools at drop-off and collection times could pose a hazard to small children. As spokesman for the Retain Our Central School Campaign, father-of-two Micheal Ó Donnchadha, was one of those who, last year, mounted a vigorous opposition to the changes in rules governing the eligibility for travel by school bus.

His sons Fiachra (7) and Liam (9) both travel to school by bus, but, given the growing uncertainty about the network’s future, O’Donnchadha is already considering alternatives. “Last year, we had 40 children entitled to the service on the bus. This year, because of the new regulations, there are only about 28 eligible children, so it’s clear that the number of entitled passengers is getting smaller,” Mr O’Donnchadha says.

He says that mini-buses will gradually replace the traditional school bus.

“What is most disturbing about all of this is that we feel that, very quickly down the road, there may not be any school transport system because the new regulations are excluding more and more children. They’re making it so unpredictable that we don’t know what will happen next.

“We’re wondering if we should just give up and make new arrangements to have the children delivered and collected.

“Maybe we’d be better to start making new arrangements now and pre-empt the demise of the system.

“The whole thing is so confusing and chaotic that you’re left thinking that, someday, you’ll receive a letter telling you that there are no longer sufficient numbers to keep the bus running, because some child has left the school,” Mr O’Donnchadha says.

Pupils starting second-level affected too

It’s not just primary-school students who are affected by swingeing changes in the school bus service — students starting as first-years this September are required to attend their closest school to avail of transport (taking ethos and language into account) — if they don’t, they’re not entitled to transport to another school.

“That’s removing the choice of school, which was allowed under the old catchment area system, and it’s coming in this September,” says Jackie O’Callaghan, a spokeswoman for the National Parents’ Council.

Second-level students have also been hit by an increase in the charges for the service and the increase to 10 of the minimum number of pupils required to retain or establish a bus service.

First-year students must reside not less than 4.8km from, and be attending, their nearest post-primary school. “If you have a child already in a second-level school and it’s not the nearest, they’ll still get transport to the school, but if you have someone starting in first-year they will not have that entitlement. It will split up families and you could have siblings having to go to different schools, which makes everything harder. It’s going to make things very difficult for parents and students. This change is highly disruptive for families,” says Ms O’Callaghan.

There is no guarantee that costs — €350 per student and a maximum per family of €650 — will not rise further. “I’d be worried that this is a quiet way of getting rid of the school bus by making it available only if you go to the nearest school and by charging €650 per family — it will become prohibitive if it goes higher,” she says.


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