28th June 2011
I thank the Minister of State for sharing his decision with Members today. I have yet to hear of a person who is opposed to the school transport system. While I realise the predicament we are in, I equally recognise the unprecedented financial times in which we find ourselves and that we have not been obliged to face such decisions heretofore. Moreover, I agree with the need to rein in expenditure. Although all these points are a given and are not up for debate, one must be careful in the actions one takes to avoid incurring additional expenditure in other areas through unintended consequences. My question to the Minister of State pertains to the displacement of pupils to which this decision potentially could give rise and which could lead to the need to increase school buildings in some areas and to the closure of schools in other areas because parents will take a decision, based on school transport costs, to change their children’s school. As it is known that such potential unintended consequences could occur, the Minister of State should indicate whether there has been an assessment of the school catchment areas. My understanding is they last were closely examined in the 1960s. How do we know what impact these decisions will have?
Moreover, although I listened carefully to the Minister of State’s contribution, I found it difficult to understand the issue and as a parent, I am trying to envisage how do parents understand the impact this decision will have. If one considers the constitutional right that the State shall provide for free primary education, I note that parents are being asked for voluntary contributions for water charges, school books and other costs, on to which another cost now is being heaped. These costs are being heaped upon the same parents and children. While one might state that this is a single charge, that is not the case as additional charges are being heaped upon the same households and families. The Minister of State noted that school transport eligibility for all new children entering post-primary education will be determined by attendance at and distance they reside from their nearest post-primary centre or school. I listened carefully last week to the Minister talking about parental choice at the forum on patronage. However, it is not parental choice if one then states the only way in which one can avail of school transport is based on distance to the school. Does this mean that children in urban areas will get to have parental choice and will get to choose the schools they wish to enter but that those living in rural areas will not have the same choice? Equally, parents and children will tell me about the fact they have changed schools because a bad situation, such as bullying, has occurred in their school and all of us, at times, need a fresh start. Are we to say that those children will not be allowed that same fresh start, that they will not get an opportunity? These are the unintended consequences. Listening to the Minister of State, I note he very carefully outlined some of the questions to which we need answers. However, we should take these decisions with these answers in hand because I agree there could be a short-term gain for us but I question at what price and whether there will be long-term pain. I am thinking of the child and the impact on that child when a parent has decided the child is going to a school because it is within the 3.2 km catchment area rather than looking at what is best for our children and the future of their education.