Budget busting bill for bus fares

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Bus fares of nearly £100 a month could rob parents of the choice of sending their children to schools outside Lurgan.

The opening of St Ronan’s school looks set to mean bus passes won’t be available to those travelling further afield.

It’s come about because St Ronan’s, which will be a non-selective voluntary grammar school for 11 to 18-year-olds, now falls into the same category as selective voluntary grammar schools in Newry, currently attended by a large number of Lurgan students.

For children over 16 it could mean a £95 monthly bus fare while a monthly ticket for under 16s comes in at £71.25.

Back in March of this year Education Minister John O’Dowd stated St Ronan’s would be the first non-selective grammar school of its kind, something described by the grammar school lobby as a contradiction in terms.

Almost a year later the school’s title and increased year intake has put it on a par with grammar schools in Newry where many Lurgan parents have historically preferred to send their children.

The result means parents wishing to continue to send their children to Newry will have to fork out to have their transport to school covered.

The SELB confirmed existing pupils would continue to be assisted with school transport, but new students may not be.

SDLP Deputy Leader Dolores Kelly said: “There’s been a huge amount of time and money spent on preparing for transfer tests, only to be told children won’t be getting bus passes if they want to go to Newry,” said Mrs Kelly.

“I’ll be tabling an urgent question to the Education Minister to probe how this decision came about.”

An SELB spokesman said transport assistance was provided in accordance with a policy from Department of Education that pupils should attend their nearest suitable school.

The spokesperson said: “Historically, Year 8 pupils from the Lurgan area wishing to attend an 11-19 grammar school have been required to travel to distant post-primary grammar school provision in Newry, Armagh and Dungannon due to the absence of suitable 11-19 grammar school provision in the locality. Consequently these pupils have been eligible for transport assistance to more distant grammar school provision.

“With the establishment of St Ronan’s 11-19 grammar school in Lurgan from September 2015, transport assistance for new pupils living in the Lurgan area wishing to attend more distant schools may no longer be available as suitable post-primary provision may be within statutory walking distance from their homes.

“The board will ensure existing pupils travelling to further away schools are not disadvantaged, by protecting current arrangements for the period they remain enrolled at the further away schools.

“Where parents make the choice for their children to bypass the new grammar school and attend more distant schools, the board must apply department rules and where pupils are deemed ineligible it becomes a matter for parents to ensure suitable transport arrangements are in place.”

Without assistance the monthly bus fare from Lurgan to Newry for a child over 16 would be £95.

The same monthly journey by rail would be just under £60.

For under 16s a monthly bus ticket to Newry would be £71.25 while a monthly train ticket would be £44.50.

If tickets were bought on weekly basis they would be £25 (bus) and £17 (train) for over 16s and £18.75 (bus) and £13 (train) for under 16s.

All prices were provided by Translink and were correct at the time of going to press.