Updated: 24/11/16 : 05:58:56
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School transport fees review due today

By Eugene McGloin

FIFTY YEARS will have passed, in a matter of months, since the school bus scheme came into place.

It seems likely that we will several reviews ahead of that Big Birthday.

Later today, we will see the first review -- on the thorny topic of students who pay ''concessionary'' fares. 

Five years ago Fianna Fáil ordered a 'value for money' review of the wider scheme.

FF were of course instigators of the plan originally but they were on their way out of power in 2011.

Anyway, how do you measure 'value for money' in a scheme which is 'free'.....even if 'free' only to some students.

To other students, they cannot even pay for a seat on the service until/unless the eligible 'free' students have all been catered for first.

Those were the original rules drawn up by the Department of Education and they haven't moved much over half a century.

The Department has always stayed an arms length from the scheme -- and especially when there is a dispute.

Parents War

Media are full -- every September, every year, every decade -- of parents at public war with Bus Eireann.

Of course the bus company merely applies the rules and guidelines it has been handed down from Education -- itself chasing the pack from Day One.

Day One, back in the mid 1960s free secondary education and free school transport were introduced without the Cabinet quite having chewed over the details.

Education Minister Donough O'Malley was not at all sure he would get a 'Yes' from the Cabinet, so he publicly vented his (costly) ideas. He called them 'free.'

Today, 114,000 children use the scheme, with over 4,000 buses on the roads daily to primary and secondary school centres.

Up to 10,000 of those children fall into special needs categories.

Sixfold Increase

Yesterday in the Dail, junior Education Minister John Halligan spoke at length on the school bus scheme.

One statistic jumped off the page: In the past six years the number of concessionary students has shot from 4,000 children to 25,000.

The 'concessionary' students are paying, for a variety of reasons.....all clearly within the rules implemented over the past half century.

Less clear -- and maybe it is mere coincidence -- is how fare-paying students increased SIXFOLD in the six years of austerity.

The school bus scheme covers both primary and second level education.

The downside to centralised educational centres was, back in the 1960s, the forced closure of smaller schools, and amalgamations.

Long Finger

'Free' is one of those issues TDs and parties talk at length in public but then, somehow, long-finger in private policy sessions on education. 

But the current Programme for Government agreed to review the 'concessionary,' fare paying rules. 

Every party and every TD will get a copy of that report, when it is published later today.

We may even learn the likely cost if all students could travel 'free.'

The parents-at-war scenario is likely to come back under the microscope.

No appeal on students having 'free' transport withdrawn has been successful in the past two years.

The appeals process itself may not be 'fit for purpose,' TD Bobby Aylward suggested yesterday.

He spoke of ''families divided'' over decisions which saw students living just 100 metres apart fall into different eligibility categories.