Parents's anger after Belfast primary school bus cancelled due to cutbacks
Children as young as four years old face the prospect of having to walk almost a mile to get to school after travelling on a public bus following cutbacks.
Parents with children at Taughmonagh Primary School in south Belfast spoke out in fury after their principal was left to break the news to them.
One mum, Rachel McDougall, was left waiting on the Blacks Road with her nine-year-old daughter on Friday - the first day of the new school term - wondering where the usual bus was.
There are 260 children at the primary school. The school transport cuts affect 38 who are from the Suffolk area, who had been bussed to Taughmonagh every day following the closure of their local primary school.
Ms McDougall's older child had attended Suffolk Primary School before it was closed in 2009.
After the school shut its doors, she and the other parents were promised a bus service to Taughmonagh for their children.
But now they have been told that they are only entitled to a bus service to their closest primary school geographically, which is Finaghy Primary School.
Despite there only being one free space there, they must apply for a place and be rejected.
To bridge the gap, the caretaker at Taughmonagh has been transporting the children from Suffolk himself. Otherwise, the 38 children aged from four to 11 would be forced to get a Metro bus from Blacks Road to the closest stop on the Upper Malone Road and then have to walk almost a mile to the school. Some children have been losing up to 45 minutes of the school day due to the transport issues.
Education Authority officials were invited to the school yesterday to meet with parents, but said they were not available.
Another mum, Stacey Gray, who has daughters aged five and eight years old, described how her youngest has been crying at the bus stop because she cannot understand why her school bus is no longer turning up.
DUP MLA Christopher Stalford blasted the decision as "outrageous" after meeting parents yesterday and is set to lead a delegation to a meeting with Department of Education officials.
"This is another consequence of not having ministers in place," he said. "When you have a situation where civil servants are being asked to make a reduction of 5% across all departments, services like this are where they will inevitably start cutting.
"In this case it is having a very negative impact on a very isolated community who have already lost their primary school and now arrangements to get their children to a nearby primary school are being made much more difficult for them. It's not right that children and parents should be put in this position."
An Education Authority (EA) spokesperson said: "The EA can confirm that children enrolled at Suffolk PS when it closed in 2009 were provided with transport to Taughmonagh PS as part of the closure arrangements.
"This entitlement applied only to those pupils enrolled in Suffolk PS at that time. The EA advised Taughmonagh PS in June 2017 that as all the pupils eligible to benefit from this arrangement had now left the school, transport would only be provided in line with statutory entitlements.
"Following further discussions with the school, transitional arrangements were agreed whereby EA will continue to transport children from Suffolk to Taughmonagh PS in the morning and the school will transport them home at the end of the school day."