‘Unsustainable’ school transport scheme may face cuts

Department calls for review of scheme as costs set to rise to above €200m next year

The publicly-funded school transport scheme, which buses almost 120,000 children to school, urgently needs to change,   the Department of Public Expenditure has warned. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

The publicly-funded school transport scheme, which buses almost 120,000 children to school, urgently needs to change, the Department of Public Expenditure has warned. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

The publicly-funded school transport scheme, which buses almost 120,000 children to school at a cost of more than €1 million per day, is “unsustainable” and urgently needs to change.

That is according to internal records which show alarm within the Department of Public Expenditure over the rising cost of the scheme which will climb above €200 million next year.

Records prepared in recent weeks show the department has insisted that the entire scheme must be reviewed over the coming months with a view to reining in costs.

In the run-up to Budget 2020, the Department of Education requested a significant increase in money for school transport for the coming year.

Warning

This was due partly to the rising number of eligible special needs pupils, who often require more expensive taxis and care assistants. This element of the scheme is set to cost more than €100 million next year.

The department has also been seeking to relax rules to ensure non-eligible second-level pupils who are charged a “concessionary” rate do not lose their seats.

However, Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe wrote to Minister for Education Joe McHugh ahead of last month’s budget, warning about the rising cost of the scheme.

“There are significant issues regarding the sustainability of this scheme. The expected growth . . . means that expenditure will already have increased by [figure redacted].

“This is not sustainable . . . the entire scheme needs to be reviewed to create a sustainable, evidence-based policy which delivers on its core objective.

“On this basis, the proposed increase . . . cannot be countenanced and the review must be framed to ensure sustainability and to reduce this figure considerably.”

Under the school transport scheme, primary schoolchildren are eligible to avail of free 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 children are charged a “concessionary” rate and places are issued on a random basis.

Concessionary tickets

The overall scheme provides transport for about 117,000 schoolchildren every day of the school term on 5,000 vehicles, making it one of the biggest operations of its kind in Europe.

Records show the Department of Education agreed to a comprehensive review in the run-up to the budget as part of a series of cost-containment measures.

The Department of Public Expenditure has supported the implementation of the recommendations of a 2011 value for money report, which would see a sharp reduction in the number of children able to avail of the scheme by axing many concessionary tickets.

This, however, has been resisted by the Department of Education.

A letter released under the Freedom of Information Act shows Mr McHugh argued that implementing these changes would have “deprived a very significant number of families access to school transport”.

He said policy over recent years has been to provide an increasing number of concessionary places to accommodate families who do not meet the eligibility criteria.

“I do not favour a policy which would deny those children access to school transport and historical practice since 2011 corroborates this.

“Nor do I think it is correct to bring about circumstances where denial of that access could result in significant changes in patterns of school attendance.”

Mr McHugh argued that the use of concessionary tickets was positive for environmental reasons, by reducing the use of family vehicles to transport children to school.

It also, he said, had labour market benefits by relieving parents of the burden of transporting their children to school.