Catchment boundary issue
A complaint relating to school transport was brought by a parent of a child, on behalf of that child and a group of 22 other children. The complaint relates to the provision of school transport and the issue of an alleged change of the catchment boundary between two areas in the county of Wexford. The children reside very close to this particular boundary.
In 2005 the parent expressed concern that the relevant catchment boundary on maps held by both the Local VEC Office and the Department of Education and Science individually were different. Therefore any decisions being made based on these maps were incorrect.
Catchment boundaries have their origins in the establishment of free post-primary education in the late 1960s. For planning purposes the country was divided into geographic districts, each with several primary schools feeding into a post–primary education centre. These defined districts also facilitated the provision of a national school transport system.
The catchment boundaries for schools are defined by the Planning Section of the Department of Education and Science. The school transport system is underpinned by those same maps. The School Transport Scheme is operated by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department of Education and Science (School Transport Section). Bus Éireann is responsible for planning routes, employing bus drivers, collecting fares and ensuring compliance with safety regulations and insurance. The VEC is responsible for administering the School Transport Scheme in Co. Wexford for all the post-primary centres. The VEC assists Bus Éireann by acting as Transport Liaison Officer (TLO) for the county.
There are two types of ticket for pupils wishing to avail of the School Transport Scheme:
• Fully Eligible tickets for pupils who reside 4.8km or more from a secondary school in their catchment boundary area; and
• Concessionary tickets for those who reside 4.8km or more from a school in another area. These are known as catchment boundary tickets.
Students with Fully Eligible status are prioritised over those who have catchment boundary status. To obtain a ticket, parents complete an application form which is signed by the relevant school principal and then forwarded to the Transport Liaison Officer (TLO) for their county.
In 2005 the catchment boundary in question was different on the individual maps of both the local VEC Transport Liaison Officer and Bus Éireann. The differences in the boundaries were extremely significant when viewed in the context that their exact function is to be used as a key criterion in the application for school transport.
The issue of which was the correct map to be used in 2005 could have been determined conclusively if the Planning Section of the Department of Education and Science had furnished the Ombudsman for Children’s Office with a copy of a master map to include all catchment boundaries which was identical to that held by the relevant Bus Éireann office or that which was in place in the Local VEC office in 2005, or as near to identical in so much as the variation was negligible.
The Department of Education and Science did not supply a map to meet this standard as required. The map provided to this Office by the Planning Section in June 2006:
1. is different to what is currently being used by Bus Éireann and the VEC;
2. is questionable as to its suitability as it appears to be incomplete;
3. appears to be a large scale map scaled on a ratio of approximately 1:62500 and, as such, does not provide the required detail to administer such a scheme effectively and accurately; and
4. contains excessively thick boundaries for the purposes of clarity and accuracy.
The Office found that the combined actions of the Department of Education and Science, Bus Éireann and the VEC in relation to the implementation of the School Transport Scheme in this particular area are based on undesirable administrative practice and are contrary to fair or sound administration.
Throughout this investigation there have been instances where maps have been traced and copied resulting in variations of the original. This Office finds that each subsequent differing map is a defacto revision of catchment boundary areas. In the light of current technological advances in digital mapping and geo-computation which allow for an extremely high level of accuracy with respect to exact location and the ability to produce accurate copies, any resolution to the mapping problems to be undertaken by the various stakeholders should involve consultation with suitable experts in this area.
The Department of Education and Science is ultimately responsible for the School Transport Scheme. The absence of an adequate monitoring system has led to successive variations of the maps occurring. The evolution of the maps held by Bus Éireann and the VEC went largely unchecked until the events of 2005.
The Ombudsman for Children recommends that the following actions take place:
- School bus transport to be provided for the 23 children who had been deemed Fully Eligible by the VEC in October 2005 to attend school in the Wexford post-primary catchment area. This transport arrangement is to remain in place for the duration of their schooling.
- The current 2008 school bus transport arrangement with respect to the children of this area to remain in place pending the outcome of the mapping review as outlined below.
- The Department of Education and Science to undertake and complete a nationwide review of the mapping procedure with respect to the post-primary catchment boundary areas.
- This review to take place within a reasonable time frame and have due regard to best practice in the area of geo-computation and digital mapping.
The Department of Education and Science has accepted the key principles contained in the investigation statement and the need for a nationwide review of the mapping procedure with respect to post-primary catchment boundary areas. The issue of catchment boundaries is to be considered in the Value for Money review of the School Transport Scheme which is to be completed by end of 2009.
In direct response to the recommendations contained in the investigation statement, the Department has agreed that the following interim arrangements take place pending the outcome of the Value for Money review.
The existing school transport arrangements will remain in place with respect of:
- the 23 children at the centre of the complaint a number of whom continue to avail of the service;
- the children currently availing of the current 2008/2009 school bus transport arrangements in this area; and
- any additional children from the same area who present for school transport provision to local post-primary centres.
Issue when young person not attending nearest school as enrolment quota full
This Office investigated a complaint about the refusal of school transport by the Department of Education and Skills to a young person because the young person was not attending their nearest school. The complainant advised that their nearest school had filled its enrolment quota therefore the young person was unable to enrol in there and consequently, the parent had to register the young person in the second nearest school.
The OCO brought this information about the lack of provision of and/or entitlement to school transport for children who were unable to attend their nearest school due to capacity issues at that school to the Department of Education and Skills.
In response, the Department of Education and Skills advised the Ombudsman for Children’s Office that they were in the process of revising the school transport policies to address issues raised in this case regarding enrolment accommodation capacity.
The Department also advised the Office that pending the formulation of the revised policy that the young person in this case, and other young people in similar circumstances, would be granted concessionary transport to the second nearest school to their home, recognising that this was in fact the nearest school with places available.
Concessionary transport issue
A mother suffering from Multiple Sclerosis brought a complaint to the OCO on behalf of her 5 year-old son. She had applied for concessionary transport as she was worried that she would be increasingly unable to bring her son to school herself. However, she was informed that her application would only be considered on receipt of a signed ‘Evidence of Agreement Form’ from the nearest primary school, as her son was not attending the nearest school to the family’s home.
The chairperson of the closer school refused to sign the required form on the basis that the Board of Management had ‘no function in the matter’. However, the Department of Education & Science reiterated their position that written agreement from the nearest primary school was necessary. The mother requested that the Department write to the Board of Management to clarify their role, but received the response that the Department would not intervene in such cases. As a result, the mother had not been able to have her application for concessionary transport considered.
The OCO contacted both the Department of Education & Science and the Board of Management of the school concerned to ascertain their positions. The DES confirmed that concessionary fare-paying transport may be allowed where pupils are not attending their nearest school, provided that the written agreement of the Board of Management of the nearest school is secured. In their reply, the chairperson of the Board of Management of the nearer school stated that the Board was “strongly of the opinion that as the matter of transport is the responsibility of Bus Éireann in normal circumstances… it is the responsibility of them alone, whenevr circumstances are found to be unusual.” The chairperson stated that signing the form would be taking upon himself the right to decide whether or not the child should have access to public transport and that Bus Éireann should not leave difficult decisions to a Board of Management.
The OCO then wrote to the Department of Education & Science to clarify whether they were in a position to explain to the Board of Management their prescribed role in the provision of concessionary transport. It was queried whether the consent requirement could be dispensed of in a situation where a school is not willing toacknowledge their role.
The Department’s response stated that verbal communication had been made with both the Principal and chairperson of the Board of Management of the school explaining their role in the provision of concessionary transport. It also stated that a Board meeting was to take place and that the issue would be discussed at that point. The Board would revert to the Department, who would subsequently make the decision known to the OCO.
The mother of the affected child was contacted by the Department of Education & Science and informed that her son would be able to avail of concessionary school transport scheme. Following the intervention by the OCO it has been resolved at local level and it was determined that no further intervention was required into the matter.
Concessionary transport for a child with special needs
A father contacted the OCO on behalf of his daughter who, as a result of her medical condition, has profound special needs. The complaint related to the lack of provision of concessionary school transport for her to attend the family’s choice of school. The school was chosen by the parents as it was deemed at that time to be the most appropriate special educational setting to assist her development and welfare.
Concessionary transport is where a seat on a school bus is made available for a child even though that child is attending a school that is not their nearest school. It is dependent on the availability of spare seats after fully eligible children have been accommodated on the scheme. Obtaining a concessionary seat does not give rise to any entitlement to a seat the following year. The family accepted these conditions and sought a concessionary place on a school bus already running to and from their desired special school from a nearby own. Their proposal involved bringing their daughter to and from the pick up point in that town and paying for the ticket. Their proposal was refused even though there was a space available, the bus was wheelchair accessible and there would be no further cost to the State.
In the absence of school transport, the family brought their daughter to and from school. As a result of the distances involved, school attendance was sporadic and family life was affected due to the time it took up.
The OCO sought information from the Department of Education and Science specifically in relation to what had occurred in this matter and generally with respect to how children with special needs may avail of school transport in such instances. While there was no specific policy relating to the decision not to allow such transport, the Department of Education and Science did provide a number of sample issues which outline potential difficulties that could occur if children with special needs were allowed transport in this way. These issues related to the administration of the scheme, the health and safety of the child, and the uncertainty attached to such concessionary transport.
However, having carefully considered all the information received, the Office found that the administrative actions of the Department of Education and Science, in refusing such transportation on those grounds, had adversely affected the child concerned and were improperly discriminatory. It was found to be such because this general approach appeared to be a disproportionate response to the possible problems, given the intended aim of providing assistance to children with special needs to attend school. Moreover, it did not allow individual children the opportunity to overcome any of the potential barriers posed. The complainant had indicated throughout the process that they fully accepted the terms of concessionary transport and that they were able to overcome all the potential barriers placed before them. The OCO understood that there are circumstances when the concessionary transport arrangement may not be suitable for a particular child but was
concerned that the child’s individual circumstances should be adequately considered rather than a general prohibition applied.
The Ombudsman for Children recommended that the Department of Education and Science revise their existing policy on school transport to allow concessionary transport in certain circumstances for children with special needs through the special school transport scheme. This revision should fairly reflect the differing circumstances in the child’s special transport needs that may exist, including the supports and abilities that such a child may have. This would result in a significant benefit to parents seeking to secure the best educational facilities for their children.
In response the Department of Education and Science advised that it fully agreed to implement all the recommendations made and that they would change the current conditions of the school transport scheme for children with special needs in time for the 2011/ 2012 school academic year.
The Department further advised that they would consult with both the NCSE and Bus Éireann as part of formalising this aspect of school transport.
This Office, satisfied with the outcome on that basis, concluded the investigation and will review the progress made ahead of the implementation date. This Office is of the view that this new aspect of the scheme should prove to be of considerable benefit to a number of children throughout the country.