I will probably repeat some of Mr. Goulding's comments. I thank the committee for affording me the opportunity to give the views of our members today. For those who I have not seen before, the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, NABMSE is the recognised management voice of special education in Ireland and we provide countrywide representation for boards of management of special schools and mainstream, primary and post-primary schools providing education for pupils with special educational needs. We represent over 200 schools.
Our members welcome the role and co-operation of the school transport section of the Department of Education and Skills and local Bus Éireann staff in the operation of the school transport scheme for students with special educational needs. This co-operation and relationship has always been the cornerstone of the efficient operation of the scheme for schools on the ground. In the NCSE policy advice paper referred to by Mr. Goulding, it states, "the special transport scheme was considered to work well and to be an important asset for parents and students". We agree with that. However, in research undertaken by ourselves in 2011, we recognised that the student's ability to participate in school is influenced by events and conditions on the bus journey. This research also noted that the skill of the bus escort in ensuring a successful journey is often challenged by the duration of the journey and appropriateness of the bus in accommodating the child’s specific needs.
In this statement I will concentrate on four matters. These are the day to day management of school transport in the special education setting; the selection criteria or rules relating to the awarding of contracts; catchment areas and the impact on special educational needs; and eligibility of students who can avail of the service.
I will give some background and context about transport for students with special educational needs. Due to the geographically dispersed location of both mainstream and special schools in Ireland, as the committee has heard from other witnesses, a significant number of students avail of the school transport scheme. I am not going to go into much more of it. The service is operated by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. The special education needs organiser, SENO, advises the Department if a child’s care and safety needs are such that the child requires the support of a bus escort, and the SENO allocates funding to schools, for the employment of bus escorts by the school - which is important - to accompany children on the bus journey to and from school. The role of the bus escort in circulars issued by the Department is described with reference to the need for children with special educational needs to be escorted while travelling on school buses and taxis, needing help with embarking and disembarking from the bus and needing help and supervision on the journey. Bus escorts also act as a vital link between home and school.
In contrast to other jurisdictions, there is no reference to the level of training that bus escorts should be expected to engage in to do their job effectively, nor is any training provided for bus escorts. Perhaps some is provided on a local level. Some of the issues that have arisen in the provision of school transport for children with special educational needs in the day-to-day management of school transport are these. Having staff on the buses with different employers can be difficult when procedures and protocols are not agreed and followed. Some schools have expressed a preference for the Department to pay bus escorts directly. There can be difficulties when buses and drivers are changed without prior notice to the school. Many pupils with special educational needs are transported in taxis. Some schools have found that, when an issue arises, there may be no personnel in that office who are familiar with the school transport arrangements.
There are many stages in the approval process for pupils with special educational needs. This can take some time and schools are often not informed of the progress of the application, nor do they receive an approval in writing in many cases. Thus, schools and parents are often not informed of the final decision until the beginning of the school year. That is extremely stressful for parents who do not know at what time or by whom their child is being picked up for school. On the selection criteria and awarding of contracts, many school contracts are changed and awarded without any notice to the school. Very often, the school is only aware of the change in contract when the contractor loses the route or when a different bus driver arrives. This leaves no time to prepare children with special educational needs for this, causing difficulties for everyone involved.
Research demonstrates clearly that children with special educational needs experience most challenges during unstructured periods of the school day such as recess, transition periods and travelling on school transport. Many bus routes are too long, causing difficulties for students with special educational needs. Some students can be on buses for well over three hours per day, which is very long. This has been raised by Mr. Sé Goulding already, and is in the policy paper. Some schools have also found that additional students can be added to routes without notice, making routes longer. Change in routine is not good for children with special educational needs and can cause difficulty for schools. An issue raised in the consultation, which Mr. Sé Goulding referred to, was respite. I am not going to go into any great detail about that.
Eligibility criteria is a matter which has been mentioned by speakers already. School transport is awarded to students on the basis that the student is attending the nearest school or special class which can be resourced to meet his or her needs. However, this can cause problems when parents consider that the nearest special school best suits the needs of the student, and there is another school nearer to the child’s home. This may mean that the student is not eligible, and that is difficult. We do not expect people to drive from Roscrea to Limerick, for argument's sake, but there is an issue there that could be considered.
I have some suggestions. On the selection criteria, we are mindful of procurement rules that apply to the provision of school transport and the requirement for routes to be put to tender. However, in the tendering of these routes and awarding of contracts, the following should be considered in the provision of transport for students with special educational needs. The experience of the operator and driver in the provision of transport and working with people with special educational needs and disabilities should be considered. The ability to provide wheelchair accessible buses can be a problem in some areas and is a problem nationally. Alternative arrangements could be put in place to provide suitable buses in the event of a breakdown, since that causes trouble with schools as well. Arrangements could be put in place for the replacement of the bus driver. Protocols could be put in place to deal with accidents on the bus. There needs to be willingness to engage in training, for example, to understand students with special educational needs, and so on.
On routes, catchment areas and applications, the length of the bus journey should be considered when planning the route. Schools should be consulted and informed of any changes to a bus route, additional students on the route and changes in bus drivers well in advance so that pupils can be prepared. There needs to be a tracking system for school transport applications. Schools should be provided with an acknowledgement of receipt of the application. Many do not even get that. There needs to be a progress report on applications and a letter from Bus Éireann - more work for Bus Éireann - giving details of the bus provider on approval of the application. Recommendation 6.3 of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, policy advice paper should be implemented without delay. This recommendation refers to transport to and from respite settings, and for students with complex needs to be transported to alternative special schools and classes where the HSE is unable to provide therapy supports.
The next section covers training for bus personnel. Recommendation 6.2 of the NCSE policy advice paper points out that personnel should be trained, and Mr. Sé Goulding alluded to that already. We consider that this recommendation should apply to all students with special educational needs, not just those with an autism spectrum disorder, ASD. There have have been developments in training for bus escorts. St. Angela’s College in Sligo developed a pilot training programme for bus escorts at our request and in partnership with us. This project emanated from the summary report of an interdepartmental working group which formed in Sligo in 2005 to provide for all those involved in school transport of children with special educational needs to work together. This group comprised members from the Department of Education and Skills, principals of special schools in Sligo, Bus Éireann and a parent representative. Discussions with bus escorts and occupational therapists also informed the work of the group.
I am happy to say that we rolled out a pilot project in Galway in 2013 and a former member of this committee, then Minister of State with responsibility for training and skills, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, awarded the certificates for it. An independent evaluation was carried out by Dr. Emer Ring of Mary Immaculate College. I am not going to go into her recommendation, but she basically recommends that a specific training programme can impact on the bus escort's ability to have a positive influence on the children with special educational needs, and it should be considered for a national roll-out. We have been talking to the Department about this and we hope that those discussions will yield some results. St. Angela’s College has amended this programme to ensure that the specific recommendations are implemented. It is now willing and ready to roll out this programme as continual professional development.
I hope that this statement gives the committee some insights into the issues affecting students with special educational needs, and those are our proposed suggestions. We look forward to working with all partners on these proposals for the improvement of the school transport experience for all students.