Special Report 98 - Provision of School Transport
Published 25 October 2017
The Department of Education and Skills (the Department) funds the provision of transport services to and from primary and post primary schools for children who live some distance from their nearest school. The Department engages Bus Éireann to deliver school transport services on its behalf. The Comptroller and Auditor General has carried out a review of the service and reports on whether the Department can demonstrate that it is achieving value for money through its arrangements with Bus Éireann to deliver the service and whether adequate oversight is in place. The main findings are as follows.
School transport services in 2015 cost the Department of Education and Skills (the Department) €173 million — about €1 million per school day. The Department engages Bus Éireann to deliver school transport services on its behalf. Payments to Bus Éireann in 2015 totalled €149 million (net of €14 million in fees collected by Bus Éireann from fare-paying pupils). The remaining cost, €24 million, primarily relates to special needs escorts and transport grants.
The school transport service is heavily subsidised, with only 8.4% of the cost of the scheme being recouped from fare-paying pupils in 2015. The average annual cost of transporting eligible pupils was around €1,800 in 2015.
The dedicated school transport bus fleet (i.e. excluding taxis and pupils who avail of scheduled Bus Éireann/CIÉ services) had a carrying capacity of 163,000 seats in 2015 — a similar carrying capacity existed in 2007. The number of eligible pupils carried on the dedicated bus fleet dropped from 117,000 in 2007 to 85,000 in 2015. Some of the spare seats are used by pupils who hold concessionary tickets. However, there is still significant estimated spare capacity of 35% when all pupils are included. Furthermore, many ticket holders do not use the service every day.
The decline in the number of users of the scheme has not been met with a similar decline in overall costs. The Department attributes this, at least in part, to the increased demand for school transport by pupils with special educational needs.
No service level agreement (SLA) is in place between the Department and Bus Éireann. The key document governing the relationship between the parties has not substantially changed in over 40 years. Bus Éireann produces an annual statement of account for the Department as part of its reporting requirements. This does not comprise a full set of financial statements. In addition, key cost drivers are not identified and the account does not provide information to support the Department in the effective management and oversight of the service. The Department carries all the financial risk associated with the scheme.
Despite the 1975 arrangements being described as a cost recovery model, Bus Éireann had accumulated a surplus of €11.2 million from operating the scheme up to the end of 2015. The Department understands that the accumulated excess funding over cost incurred has been set aside and will be applied by Bus Éireann to meet future costs of school transport operations. The statutory financial statements of Bus Éireann for 2015 do not support this position.