Fears rural school buses may be facing new cutbacks

PARENTS and community members have been asked to voice their opinions on the future of home to school transport by taking part in an online review launched by the Department of Education.
The review which aims to ensure “home to school transport is fit for purpose and sustainable over the long term” has been branded a ‘sham consultation’ that represents a serious threat to the right of children to an education, according to Unite the Union.
The online questionnaire puts forward a number of options for the future direction of the service here. However, “none of them are good options from a Fermanagh perspective” according to Fermanagh based union representative, Donal O’Cofaigh.
In one area of the survey it sets out three possible options, asking parents to choose between charges for school transport, an increase in the distance for free school transport eligibility or providing free transport only to the nearest school within the chosen category.
“Any charges to school transport would be punitive,” remarked Mr O’Cofaigh, “This will have an immediate consequence on parents then going to maybe use carpooling, taxis or alternatives and that will undermine rural transport. A lot of the bus services in rural areas of Fermanagh are dependant on the school fares to keep them running and sustainable.”
The option to only provide transport to the closest school “would potentially undermine parental choice and sustainability of schools in the county,” he added.
The third option relates to increasing the distances children are required to walk. At present in order to determine which pupils are entitled to school transportation the Education Authority’s policy incorporates ‘walking distance’, ie. two miles in relation to a pupil under eleven years of age and three miles for older pupils.
“If you think of a child of five they could be expected to walk further than two miles to school in the morning and two miles home, which is a ridiculous situation in Fermanagh where there is no lighting in many areas. A child of eleven might be expected to walk more than three miles, that would be a total of six miles per day on roads without lighting, with no kerbs, it’s dangerous and it’s unacceptable.”
Unite has launched an online petition against the Department’s review. Gareth Scott from Unite said, “Rather than a fake choice between options all of which are predicated on continued austerity, Unite is calling for increased funding for education generally and for school bus transport in particular. We need to look at educational spend not as a cost but an investment.”
The petition will run until March 2019. Unite then hope to be in a position to present the Department with tens of thousands of signatures in defence of free and universal school transport.

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