The Ulster Unionist Party have called upon the Education Minister to reconsider Northern Ireland’s home to school transport policy, calling the existing policy ‘unsafe, inefficient and out-dated.’
The Assembly motion was moved by UUP Education Spokesperson, David McNarry MLA, and was also supported by Jo-Anne Dobson MLA and Ross Hussey MLA.
During the debate David McNarry, who is also deputy Chairman of the Assembly’s Education Committee, said:
“The present rules governing home to school transport were laid down 15 years ago and it is time for a review,” explained Mr McNarry.
“Home to school transport involves 110,000 children with 30% of children receiving free transport. There is an annual cost of some £74 million. 65% use Translink and 27% use Board buses. If all pupils currently being transported by Education Board buses, for example, were transported instead by Translink, it is estimated that an annual saving of £6.8 million could be achieved. 8% of pupils are transported in taxis and the taxis alone cost £8 million a year.”
“We simply cannot afford to ignore potential savings. The least we can look for is a far better working relationship between the Education Boards and Translink, for the benefit of the public purse and to see what reductions can be negotiated with commercial private companies, using the negotiating tool of bulk purchase. We should enlarge the scope of private enterprise to compete for contracts, or bundles of contracts, and see what enhancement of community bus services can also be realised on the back of this.”
“If rural schools are closed by the executive action of the Minister he must be responsible for the financial consequences of his actions. This includes the cost of forcing many more children into a position where they will need home to school transport to travel to more distant schools.”
“If rural life is to continue and all-age communities preserved in the countryside then good home to school transport is essential, not optional. I say this, in particular, as an MLA who represents the Strangford constituency where there are many small rural communities, small villages and small towns and many small rural schools.”
“I want to bring to the public’s attention the absolute need to sustain rural and semi-rural life which is the norm for more than one third of our citizens. An intrinsic part of sustaining rural life is good home to school transport. That is part of ensuring the viability of communities. We cannot allow this important consideration to fall between the gratings in our scramble for savings.”
Jo-Anne Dobson MLA added, “In my Upper Bann constituency, I have been contacted by a number of concerned parents about SEN students travelling to and from schools in taxis which are overcrowded, an issue which may well affect all our constituencies. The consequences of an accident occurring when children do not have access to a seatbelt are too horrific to contemplate. We have all seen the Television adverts which graphically highlight this issue in adults but it would be abhorrent to think that in being transported to and from their schools our young children were being put in danger.”
Ross Hussey MLA added, “Home to school transport policy has to be rural proofed – child safety comes before any financial considerations. In my West Tyrone constituency, parents in Magheramason, Bready, Donemanna, Artigarvan, Ballymagorry and Strabane suddenly found bus services removed, forcing a 2 or 3 mile walk for children. When you leave Magheramson on foot the footpath soon disappears and you are left with a grassy area running alongside the main A5 with oncoming traffic travelling at up to 60 mph. In the rain, you walk on slippy grass and you are buffeted by the pressure created by an articulated lorry thundering past you. This is a totally unacceptable situation. In Londonderry because the Peace Bridge was opened, the bus service was withdrawn and children have to walk to Foyle and Londonderry College – despite the fact that in bad weather this bridge may become a nightmare for pedestrians to cross. With the withdrawal of services to the newly amalgamated Strabane Academy parents were left to attempt to pay approximately £8 per child to send them to school by bus or walk them to school. The Police at one stage even suggested that they were going to be prosecuted as they were taking part in an illegal parade.”