Dáil Éireann - Volume 342 - 11 May, 1983

Private Members' Business - Adjournment Debate: School Transport.

An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Tunney has been allowed to raise a matter on the Adjournment on the question of school transport in his constituency for two children. He has 20 minutes and the Minister has ten.

Mr. Tunney: Initially, I want to thank the Chair for having given me permission to raise on the Adjournment a specific [1066] matter not connected with school transport generally but in respect of that as it applies to two named students. I am sure that, having listened to the case I am about to make, the Chair will understand my anxiety and impatience in bringing this matter before the House.

I should preface my remarks by saying that I regret that the circumstances are such that other Deputies and I should on occasion have to waste the time and resources of this House in applying ourselves to what is the indifference and negligence of officers and institutions not connected with us but who we are told have some responsibility towards us. I do not think it should be necessary for me, or indeed for any other Deputy, to serve as a watchdog on behalf of parents or anybody else who, through the indifference and neglect of two organisations — in this case the Department of Education and CIE — are being deprived of their lawful rights.

That might sound a serious charge to make, but I am sure that in the course of the next 15 minutes I shall indicate that it is not a wrong accusation. We know that the taxpayers pay annually a large sum, £900 million at the moment, towards what is called education. That amount is divided up into different sectors which are served — primary, secondary and tertiary, or third level. There is one level among those, that is the primary level, which is mandatory on parents. They must send their children to primary school. The Constitution says that that obligation is there and that the State is obliged to provide that free of charge.

We can leave examination of that aside for the moment, but we all accept it. The Department of Education in discharging this responsibility and where they cannot provide at the doorstep the education that people require, for certain understandable economies, build centres of education in certain areas and students are expected to travel to them. That is a simple and understandable point.

Over the years, however, in respect of a particular type of student and in deference to that ambition, aim, objective which we all have in respect of education of equality of opportunity and equality of [1067] rights, the State in its wisdom endeavours to indulge in what might be regarded as a distributive justice, and in respect of children who are not endowed with what is regarded as the normal or average IQ, has built special schools. These special schools cannot be built on every road or in every vicinity and they are located at certain points.

Again, all Governments have agreed that children who qualify for attendance at these schools are entitled to free transport, so establishing two simple facts. The Department oblige parents to send children to primary level schools. In respect of children who are classified as eligible or in need of what is called special education, they are obliged to go to those schools and the Department, having adjudicated upon the students, provide transport, I take it, for many reasons, one of which is that it is cheaper for them to transport the children rather than build a school where there might be only a half dozen or ten or 15 such children.

I want to establish two points. The Department are charged with, accept and have provided for that responsibility. Parents who do not co-operate with the Department are liable to be charged if they do not send their children to school, whether it is the normal primary or a special school. In respect of the transportation of the children, the Department co-operate with the national transport system, Córas Iompair Éireann and here again the Department pay to CIE, using taxpayers' money, a considerable amount of money so that they can discharge that duty.

This year there has been much comment on it and I am not at all going to treat in any way of what is called the general school transport system, but the House knows that the subvention at the moment, the amount paid, is something in the region of $30 million. CIE, arising from that contract or commitment, are paid the full economic cost of it, together with a percentage in respect of their handling of it. So it is a paying proposition for them. However, to me, CIE are the servants of the Department of Education in respect of what is required.

[1068] Now, I have devoted enough time to establishing the factual background to the matter to which I will now refer specifically. For the purpose of the anonymity to which they might be entitled lest anything I might say on their behalf might in any way be the occasion of embarrassment to their parents, I refer to the two students by their Christian names, Alan and Mark. Alan and Mark have been attending one of these special schools — repeat, would not be attending there except that they have been adjudicated upon as not being the type of student blessed with the intelligence that benefits from the normal primary school. The Department have accepted that they can use State moneys to have them transported. That contract has been discharged by CIE. Again, I have established that these children are not what are regarded as average or normal children.

On 24 January last that service was withdrawn from Alan and Mark. From inquiries I have made I am told that the reason was that in the opinion of CIE —who, whatever else they may be cannot be regarded by anybody as educationalists — the two children in question were not behaving in a normal fashion. I might add that the two children were two of 60 students to travel on a bus which caters for two special schools in the area, St. Michael's House and Scoil Chiaráin. That service was withdrawn by CIE on 24 January last. I understand that it was reported by the school authorities. I understand further that the Department of Education, the Department charged with the responsibility of looking after those children, the Department that would charge the parents of those children if they were negligent in the matter of sending them to school, did nothing about it. If that is true, as far as I am concerned the Department of Education stand indicted.

I gave notice here that I hoped to raise the matter on the Adjournment a week or two ago. I did not succeed. I have been in negotiation with the school. The parents of those children have been with me twice weekly for the last three weeks. Those parents, because of the natural [1069] interest they would have in their children — and again I suppose to fulfil the requirements of the Department of Education and the State being that they send their children to school — have had to accompany those two little boys to school. We all know, the Department of Education know and CIE know that already the children are not regarded as being capable of travelling on their own. Therefore the point I make is that if the Department of Education insist that they go to school, they themselves understand that somebody must accompany them. They understand further that one cannot accompany a child on public transport nowadays without paying for the child and for oneself. Those two families have been obliged — apart from the other considerations of having a child of that nature in their homes — to spend sums of £10 per week to bring their children to the special school. That is not hearsay. The history I give of this case is as I tell it. I repeat that to me it is a case of the most serious neglect of duty I have met on the part of CIE and the Department of Education in respect of what they are supposed to be doing for young children. Two children from whom transport that was considered essential to bring them to a special school was withdrawn on 24 January last and has not yet been restored. The parents in question, one of whom is unemployed, having been made redundant, have to spent £10 per week to get the children to a primary school so that first they will satisfy the normal interest of parents in their children but, secondly, they will not be charged — and the charge would be initiated by the Department of Education who have shown scant interest in the two children in question.

The Minister for Justice said here last week that it costs £424 to keep a prisoner in prison; that is the cost. We know that a person would not be in prison unless, in the considered view of a judge, sometimes a jury, he or she had been guilty of doing some wrong to society. Here we have a situation in which two children, born in the fashion that has been decided, one which we cannot comprehend all that well, guilty of nothing other than that [1070] they were indulging in behaviour which is, I would maintain, proper and understandable in respect of retarded children, have been denied transport to school. We, in our coldness and indifference, allow the service to be withdrawn, sit back and do nothing about it until some public representative, who ordinarily might be about other business, becomes aware of this fact and attempts to have it remedied in the only fashion he knows by exposing it here in this House. That should not be necessary.

I am asking the Minister of State. This was initiated on 24 January last; again I do not know why I should have to do this but the Minister of State in the past has indicated to me that he might think that contributions made by me are aimed at reflecting on him personally, so I would remind him that they are not. I am reflecting on the Department of Education but more especially on CIE. Who gave CIE permission to withdraw transport facilities from two of our students? It is not written down in any regulations I have read in the Department of Education. Who allowed CIE, having done that, not to provide or present a remedy, or to alert the Department of Education to the remedy, or if they did, am I wrong in my understanding or in accepting the innocence of the Department? Maybe they did; maybe they knew about it before it was raised here. Certainly the principal of the school alerted them to it. I have no evidence that they did anything about it. I could understand a week, a fortnight, three weeks or even a month elapsing — it is not easy to rearrange things overnight — but this occurred on 24 January last. We are now nearly halfway through the month of May.

Meanwhile the parents of these children have been forking out money they cannot afford so that these two boys can be brought to the school. How long more is it going to last? Is there going to be any effort made at making restitution to the parents who are forced into the position, wrongfully, of paying that money? If those parents — and I know this from looking at files when in the Department — were in a better position to articulate their case, would this have happened? Is [1071] it because they live in a certain area which is regarded as a special area that people thought one could forget about them? I would hope not. I had the pleasure of serving in the Department of Education. I met there, and was always happy to express publicly, the respect and esteem in which I held all the officers in the division dealing with special education. I was happy with the progress that had been made and would not want to condemn the Department on one isolated case. But, from the evidence I have in respect of this case, the only — and this apparently would have been accepted by the Department — contention was that they were not well behaved on the bus. These were two little children of eight and nine years of age, but CIE, despite receiving £30 million in State funds to transport children, decided to withdraw the service while apparently the Department of Education have stood idly by.

I look forward to the Minister of State telling me that this matter having been brought to his notice, he has had the situation examined. If he is in a position this evening to assure me that the service is being restored and if perhaps he can offer some apology to the parents, I would be prepared to accept that what happened was not known to him before I attempted to raise it in the House.

Minister of State at the Department of Education (Mr. Creed): It is with some reluctance that I approach this discussion on the adjournment regarding the withdrawal of transport facilities from two mildly mentally handicapped children. My reluctance is based on the fact that I do not wish to go into detail concerning the facts of the case, primarily out of concern for the children themselves. I should add that there never has been any question of charging parents of mentally handicapped children in respect of the transport services provided for these children. It has nothing to do with the present transport system of charges. I mention that in case there should be any confusion, though the Deputy mentioned that himself.

The Deputy well knows from his own [1072] extensive experience in the Department of Education that special education of special children is a matter to which the Department pay very particular attention. We can all take a little pride in our achievements in this area and on the dedicated commitment shown by voluntary bodies, by teachers, by school managers and by Department officials under successive administrations to bring about the best possible educational circumstances and provisions for handicapped children in need of special help. I can assure Deputy Tunney that the same spirit pervades in the special education service today as existed during his period in office in the Department of Education and accordingly the special transport service would not have been withdrawn from the two children about whom we are both concerned without very good and cogent reasons.

Without going into detail, I am satisfied — and I hope the Deputy will accept my assurance on this point — that the withdrawal of the special transport facility by CIE, as agents of the Minister in this case, was the only course open in the short term in order to ensure the safety of the children themselves, of their fellow passengers on the service and of other road users.

This withdrawal of special transport was not sudden and precipitate. Concern regarding the behaviour of the children in question while travelling on the school bus was raised with the principal of the school they were attending on more than one occasion and, I understand, that the principal, in turn, raised the matter with the parents of the children. This did not secure any improvement in their behaviour.

There are many issues of importance arising out of this case to which due consideration must be given. First, there is the safety of other road users. Persistent disruptive behaviour of the kind practised by the children in question while on the school bus was of such a nature as would unduly distract the driver and produce other hazards which could have resulted in a serious road accident. Secondly, there was the question of the safety and comfort of the other children [1073] travelling on the bus, all of whom were pupils of special schools. Actions which could threaten the safety of these children either within the bus or arising from a road accident to which the disruptive behaviour to which I have referred would contribute, clearly could not be tolerated. Also these children are entitled to avail themselves of school transport under acceptable conditions and not to have their comfort and security continually upset and threatened. Last but not least there is the question of the safety of the two children in question.

The Deputy will know that disruptive behaviour of the kind to which I referred can frequently be the result of hyperactivity in the child and, indeed, it may very well be that the children are not in a position to fully understand the seriousness of their actions nor to bring such behaviour under control.

Whatever the source of this behaviour the safety of the children themselves is paramount and it would not be considered appropriate to continue transporting them on a service on which their safety could not be reasonably assured.

The nature of their behaviour was such as to raise questions as to whether they were appropriately placed with regard to special education services. Obviously this is a matter of considerable importance to the children as their best hope of progress lies in having a special education service that matches their needs as much as possible. The Deputy will know that the investigation of this matter takes some period of time and involves the health services, with the consent of the parents. The first steps in reviewing the position of the children in respect of the suitability of the education service being provided for them have been taken and the matter will be pursued further in the interests of the children.

Meanwhile my Department have been investigating alternative means of transport of such a nature as might be able to contain their hyperactivity and ensure that they would not be in a position to constitute a danger to themselves and others. I hope to be in a position to have [1074] such alternative means of transport implemented within a short period.

I have no objection to Deputy Tunney or to anybody else bringing this matter before the House by way of an Adjournment debate. However, because of the sensitive area with which we are dealing, I am not in a position to give to the Deputy a full and detailed reply. The decision that had to be taken was in the interest not only of the two children concerned but of their fellow passengers. As the Deputy mentioned, this bus was transporting more than 40 children to different schools. While the position of the two children in question is a matter of concern, the position of their fellow passengers must be taken into consideration also. I am sure the Deputy appreciates the difficulties in a situation such as this. The matter is being investigated and I hope to be in a position to give further information to the Deputy as soon as that investigation has been completed.

The Deputy will appreciate that I cannot give any further information at this stage. Regarding the Deputy being the watchdog of people in such circumstances, if he had called to my office in the first instance and given me the information I could have had the matter investigated. I have been aware of the situation only since the Deputy tried to raise it on the Adjournment. But I hope that there will be a satisfactory outcome to my investigations. I sincerely hope that the Deputy will appreciate the difficulty of the situation having regard to the number of children involved. The matter will have my attention.

Mr. Tunney: I appreciate what the Minister is trying to do, but in the meantime the parents are paying £10 per week in order to have their children taken to school. That is money they can ill afford to pay. In so far as the Minister might be paying later anyway to have the children taken to school, will he not consider doing something to alleviate the burden on the parents in the meantime? The parents have no option but to pay this money or keep their children at home.

[1075] Mr. Creed: I am not giving an undertaking of anything of that nature to the Deputy. I am having the matter investigated and I will communicate with him as [1076] soon as the investigations have been completed.

The Dáil adjourned at 9 p.m. until 11.30 a.m. on Thursday, 12 May 1983.