Rising cost of school transport scheme may ‘not be sustainable’
Government officials say cost-saving and efficiency measures needed for €190m scheme
The State’s school transport service is heavily subsidised, with only 8 per cent of the cost recouped from fare-paying pupils in 2015.
The rising cost of the State’s school transport scheme may not be sustainable and needs to be urgently reviewed, according to internal Government documents.
The Department of Education is currently paying more than €1 million per school day – or €190 million a year – on bus services for more than 100,000 children who live some distance from their nearest school.
The costs have been rising due mainly to an increase in the number of eligible children with special needs who require transport.
Spending on special needs transport – which often includes bus escorts or taxis for students – has jumped from €64 million to €92 million between 2013/14 and 2017/18.
Records released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act show concern within the Department of Public Expenditure over the rising costs in advance of last October’s budget.
One document prepared for Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe expressed concern “regarding the sustainability of the scheme and need for active management and for Des [Department of Education and Skills] to identify efficiency savings and use existing capacity”.
Another official warned that a review of the school transport scheme was needed to identify savings in light of “considerable increases”.
At the Department of Education, meanwhile, briefing material prepared for the then minister for education noted that school transport required significant additional resources.
However, it said this view was not shared by the Department of Public Expenditure, which was requesting efficiency savings.
“This [school transport] continues to be an area of public and political concern,” one record states.
“Dper [Department of Public Expenditure] indicate that their analysis indicates that the pressure will be lower than this, but they have not shared this; we cannot establish whether any proposed measures would be operationally workable or deliverable in the political context.”
The issues are likely to come under scrutiny at a meeting of the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee, which is examining spending on the school transport scheme.
Primary schoolchildren are eligible to avail of school transport services if they live 3.2km or more from their nearest school, while the equivalent distance at second level is 4.8km.
Pupils who do not qualify under the eligibility rules may use the school transport service if there is spare capacity on a bus route. These are known as concessionary ticket holders.
The scheme provides transport for about 117,000 schoolchildren every day of the school term on 4,500 vehicles, making it one of the biggest operations of its kind in Europe.
The Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG) has found that the number of eligible pupils using the service has fallen in recent years, though costs have been rising due partly to the proportion of special needs pupils.
It estimates that in 2015 the proportion of spare seats on these school transport bus routes is running at about 35 per cent.
If pupils who hold concessionary, or paid-for, tickets are excluded, spare capacity would rise to some 48 per cent.
The C&AG has also noted that the service is heavily subsidised, with only 8 per cent of the cost recouped from fare-paying pupils in 2015.
The average annual cost of transporting eligible pupils was about €1,800 in 2015. In that year, 48,000 ticket holders were exempt from charges and an annual ticket purchased cost on average just over €200 per fare-paying pupil.