Since the Ombudsman for Children’s Office was established in 2004, we have and continue to receive a significant volume of complaints relating to school transport.
We are conscious that at this time of year, families all over the country (including those who have contacted us) are planning for the new school year and are awaiting decisions or making arrangements regarding how their children are to attend school in September. It is important that anyone contacting us understands the role that we may have and have had in addressing past, present and future concerns which are brought to our attention.
Recently we have experienced a surge in complaints which appear to be triggered by the proposed upcoming changes to the School Transport Scheme. The issues brought to us by parents from all over the country on behalf of their children include:
- the increased costs involved in using school transport
- the changes to the closed school rule
- changes to the minimum number requirement to establish a bus route
- the lack of alternative choices available and the cost implications of same
- health and safety issues
- the impact that this will have on family time and work balance
- the continued availability and viability of transport for siblings
Investigative work done to date
In addition to investigating individual complaints on behalf of children we have also made recommendations intended to improve better administrative practise within the Scheme for all children.
- A nationwide review of the catchment boundary maps with respect to the post-primary school catchment 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.
In another investigation:
- That the prohibition on concessionary transport for children with special needs should be lifted and in certain in certain circumstances, that they should be allowed travel on a bus to attend their school of choice.
Not all complaints require an investigation by our Office to promote good practise, in another complaint received we quickly intervened and encouraged the Department to develop a list of interested parties so that families could be informed and empowered to meet the minimum requirement to establish a bus service.
It is our job to promote and monitor children’s rights in Ireland. Our authority and responsibilities are set out in the Ombudsman for Children’s Act, 2002. This far reaching piece of legislation gives us the power to investigate complaints and allows us to give advice to Government Ministers on laws and policy affecting children and to encourage public bodies to consider the best interests of children in order to make fair decisions about them. We often use a combination of our various powers in order to get the best results we can, not only for the children and families who contact directly, but for all families who deal with the public body in question.
The way children travel to and from school is an issue that affects the lives of every school going child in this country. The School Transport Scheme assists thousands of children and families in Ireland in accessing education. Families contacting this Office will be aware that the Department having completed a Value for Money Review of the School Transport Scheme have announced new changes to take effect. We understand that recent changes coming into effect in September 2011 and future changes expected in 2012 are a cause of real concern for many families.
While this Office has the power to investigate the administrative actions of a public body to see if they are sound and fair, we also have a statutory role in promoting issues that are of concern to children and their families.
We are conscious that the proposed changes to the scheme are fundamental and far reaching in nature. In order to have the best impact we can have, our Office has decided that where appropriate we will continue to address individual complaints received regarding the fairness of the administrative actions complained of through our complaint sand investigation function. However in this current transition period, with the guidelines and administration of the scheme set to change, such examination may involve determining and comparing administrative actions against guidelines that are about to be replaced by large scale changes which are to implemented in efforts to reduce the costs of the school transport scheme arising from the Value for Money Review.
Due to the large number of children who will be affected, the focus of how we should intervene in those circumstances may need to change.
In these times of economic difficulty, the challenge that faces this Office as an independent and impartial watchdog is to continue to identify and investigate issues of poor administrative practise and to also seek to ensure that any administrative changes affecting children, occur in as fair and equitable a manner as possible having regard to the best interests of the child(ren) involved and the available resources.
We will be meeting with the School Transport Section at the Department of Education and Skills shortly to outline the concerns brought to us by families, our own concerns and to use the vast body of work done to date through our complaint and investigation function to press for the implementation of recommendations from previous investigations which we believe would result in a more equitable system.
It is our intention to update the website with the outcome of this process
What this means for children or adults on their behalf in future contact with us regarding school transport
We will continue to consider complaints received as part of our investigative process.
While we endeavour to deal with each one received on an individual basis, our approach in these new circumstances may result in occasions where members of the public contact us with complaints, concerns or queries regarding school transport, may be advised that we intend to address those issues are to be addressed through direct engagement with the public body. If this occurs, it is not intended in any way to take away from or diminish those concerns; rather it reflects our position and need to effectively address or highlight an issue on behalf of a greater number of children who may be similarly affected.
It also reflects a core ombudsman principle in that we feel it is important that the public body responsible for providing and arranging the service is afforded the opportunity to address those issues.
Indeed, we would encourage families and professionals who wish to bring their concerns to our attention to continue to do so; it helps inform the independent work of the Office and ensures that we are taking the appropriate steps on behalf of children.