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School transport scheme operates at ‘considerable cost’ but provides wider economic benefits, review finds

Department of Public Expenditure has previously flagged ‘unsustainable’ cost increases in €340m-a-year scheme

A review of the €340 million-a-year school transport scheme finds that while it is operating at “considerable cost”, it plays a key role in reducing climate emissions, supporting parents to work and providing access for children to school.

The review was triggered in recent years following concern within the Department of Public Expenditure over “unsustainable” costs as well as annual controversy over the volume of children who lose out on bus places.

Internal Department of Education records state that the review has been completed and that it makes the case that the scheme supports wider Government policies in areas such as climate action, rural connectivity, tackling rural deprivation, supporting the labour market and working parents and fostering life skills for children.

“While operating at significant cost to the exchequer, the school transport scheme has demonstrable wider economic benefits and offers a vital public service without which many families would struggle to find alternative modes of transport to and from school,” one record states.


The scheme which is managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department of Education, transported some 149,000 children, including more than 18,000 children with special educational needs, on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the State last year.

In addition, school transport was provided for more than 5,400 children who have arrived to Ireland from Ukraine.

The total cost of the scheme in 2022/23 was almost €340 million. The numbers using school transport are expected to climb again in the 2023/24 school year.

Records relating to eligibility for school transport in the review have been redacted in records seen by The Irish Times.

Under the current terms of the scheme, children are eligible for transport at primary level where they reside not less than 3.2 kilometres from and are attending their nearest national school.

At second level, the rules are that students must reside not less than 4.8 kilometres from and are attending their nearest post primary school/education centre as determined by the Department or Bus Éireann, having regard to ethos and language of instruction.

Any children who do not meet these criteria are deemed not eligible, or concessionary applicants, and are allocated a ticket based on the availability of a seat when all eligible children have been catered for.

This has been a key source of frustration for many families on the basis that concessionary ticket holders can lose their place on a bus if it is subsequently fully occupied by eligible applicants.

The Department of Education initially agreed to a comprehensive review of the school transport scheme on foot of concerns by the Department of Public Expenditure over rising costs, records indicate.

In the past, the latter department supported the implementation of the recommendations of a 2011 value for money report, which recommended axing many concessionary tickets. This, however, was resisted by the Department of Education.

Where the number of ineligible children exceeds the number of spare seats available after eligible children have been catered for, Bus Éireann will allocate tickets for the spare seats using an agreed selection process.

Some rules have recently been relaxed at second level on a temporary basis and there will be significant interest in seeing whether they will be retained permanently.

For example, transport is provided where there is a route in operation and where capacity exists for concessionary secondary-level pupils who are eligible for transport to their nearest school and are attending their second-nearest school, and who applied and paid on time.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent