School staff could be banned from driving minibuses for pupils
More than 500 staff members in 49 of Northern Ireland's controlled schools will no longer be able to transport pupils by minibus under proposed new rules.
Preventing teachers from volunteering to drive minibuses will be a "disaster for schools, with pupils suffering the most" the Controlled Schools' Support Council (CSSC) said.
Since 1967, some minibus services have been given special dispensation to operate in order to provide such services.
But the Government may be about to remove that status with stricter regulation.
The new rules could mean teachers would need a full minibus licence and a certificate proving their competence.
After-school activities, Duke of Edinburgh schemes, sports teams and youth clubs would likely be affected.
In the absence of an Infrastructure Minister, a decision over whether to change the arrangements is due to be taken shortly by the Department for Infrastructure's permanent secretary, Peter May.
Yesterday, the CSSC issued the findings of a consultation about the effects the planned rules could have on controlled schools, the largest education sector here.
CSSC chief executive Barry Mulholland said: "Our consultation shows that in just 49 schools, over 530 staff drivers were identified. Scale this up across Northern Ireland and the number of staff affected by the changes runs into thousands.
"Schools will be left with the choice to either pay for drivers to complete the necessary steps to meet the requirements, rely on private providers or curtail their activities as a result of the incoming changes.
"In the current financial climate, this is just not possible or realistic for schools.
"Goodwill is being eroded and many activities that pupils take for granted will cease.
"It doesn't make sense that a member of staff who volunteers to drive a school minibus - for example to an extra-curricular sporting event - will be prevented from doing so through this new interpretation of the regulation.
"This same member of staff will still be able to volunteer to drive a minibus for another organisation, so it isn't about their competence.
"While we agree that staff who are required to drive a school minibus as a function of their job should be appropriately licensed, our consultation has shown the detrimental impact these changes will have on the quality of education provided to pupils."
One school principal told the CSSC that "the introduction of the proposed requirements would have a deeply debilitating effect on the totality of our young people's education".
Another said that "schools certainly would have had insufficient time to adequately re-work budgets, teacher timetables, sub-cover etc - all of which bring with them additional financial pressure which is already at crisis level".
Mr Mulholland said the situation has been further exacerbated by rumours that the department is going to make a ruling imminently.
However, the department has said that there is currently a legal challenge to the consultation and they plan to clear up the legal position at the end of the month.
"The department is now engaging widely with those affected and with other interested organisations, including the Equality Commission, about the delivery of key services," a spokesperson for the department said.