Belfast Telegraph

Anger as free bus for pupils is axed

By Brendan McDaid

A series of top level meetings got under way last night after school transport was withdrawn from dozens of pupils in west Tyrone.

Pupils and their parents held a protest walk to the school gates of the newly-formed Strabane Academy yesterday morning amid anger over changes.

Many students have been affected as the result of the merger between Strabane High School and Strabane Grammar.

The pupils will now have to make alternative travel arrangements as they no longer qualify for free transport, because they live less than three miles from their new school.

Politicians in Strabane have also warned that some primary school children, as young as |four, were being forced to walk 40 minutes to school with their |parents.

The Department for Education said it is required to make £5m in savings from the home-to-school transport scheme across Northern Ireland during the current |financial year.

Strabane District councillor Derek Hussey claimed that the Western Education and Library Board (WELB) had been forced to make cuts to its transport |budget to the tune of £1.1m.

West Tyrone MLAs and Strabane district councillors yesterday went directly to the chief executive of the WELB, Barry Mullholland, and Education Minister John O'Dowd to discuss the |issues.

Mr Hussey said: “What has happened is that the department has laid down instructions that boards cut out what was previously known as concessionary transport.

“If you lived within walking distance, but there were spare seats available, people could get on the bus.

“There is increasing pressure on the boards because of the transport budget cuts.

“But the transport budget is a major aspect of the overall budget for WELB because of the nature of the area, the rurality.

“In the Ballymagorry area, you have pupils walking along what is is essentially the A5.

“I was contacted by one parent today in Castlederg who walked their four-year-old to primary school and it took 40 minutes. That is totally unacceptable.”

Politicians have stressed that the Strabane area has many pockets of deprivation, with families much less likely to have access to private transport than the provincial average.

Sinn Fein councillor Dan Kelly said he was hopeful that his party colleague, minister O’Dowd, would intervene to address the issues.

“I know parents who got up at 6.30am this morning to walk their kids to school,” he added.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Decisions surrounding the provision of bus routes and concessionary seats are entirely an operational matter for the boards to address within the context of ensuring the provision of efficient operations which represent value for money.”

A spokeswoman for WELB responded: “In previous years, the board was able to offer concessionary free Home to School Transport Assistance.

“However, this concession has had to be withdrawn for September 2011, because there is no surplus capacity on buses going to Strabane Academy.”

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