NI Children’s Commissioner asked to probe safety fears as school children face long wait for bus

Pupils from St John the Baptist's College Portadown
Pupils from St John the Baptist's College Portadown

A Portadown school principal has voiced frustration as ten young pupils have been forced to wait almost two hours for a bus home from school.

Mrs Noella Murray, principal at St John the Baptist’s College is ‘at a loss’ as to why the Education Authority is failing to help the pupils get an earlier bus home.

Pupils from St John the Baptist's College Portadown

Pupils from St John the Baptist's College Portadown

All the pupils are from Maghery, almost nine miles from the school, and their parents, as well as the school principal, are upset that they have to wait so long to get home.

Mrs Murray said the long wait until 5pm to catch a bus is having an impact on the children, particularly during the dark evenings.

“It is very frustrating that this can’t be sorted out. There is an earlier bus which is used by other children coming from Armagh and, though it is a private bus, the facility is paid for by the Education Authority,” said Mrs Murray, who is ‘at a loss’ as to why pupils from her school cannot use it.

“There is a safeguarding issue here too,” said Mrs Murray.

Upper Bann MLA Dolores Kelly has also voiced frustration at the Education Authority and has reported the matter to the Children’s Commissioner.

She described an ‘appalling attitude’ by the Education Authority and accused it of ‘inaction’ in relation to the plight of the school children.

Mrs Kelly said: “I contacted the School Transport division of the Education Authority on behalf of parents of first year pupils who have to wait from the end of the school day at 3.20pm until 4.45pm to get a bus home to Maghery.

“My office was told by an Education Authority Officer that there was a bus bringing school children home from a number of schools in the Portadown area but implied that he didn’t think it was a good idea for children from other schools in the area to travel together.”

The MLA also claimed that the officer said ‘negotiations were ongoing and that they would resume after Christmas’.

Mrs Kelly said she was astounded when the officer had queried why was this an issue now in November whenever schools had started in September?

“I was shocked by these remarks and contacted both the school and Translink. The school is very clear that they first raised the matter on September 19 with the E.A. and have a trail of emails to back this up. Translink were most helpful but, to date, have no requests regarding rescheduling.”

Mrs Kelly added: “Faced with this attitude and this unacceptable time for school children to be waiting almost 1 and a half hours, I contacted the office of Children and Young People Commissioner and am pleased that they will take up the case on receipt of a complaint from one or all of the families affected. This is currently being processed. The E.A, needs to review and hold to account their decision makers as this attitude falls far short of any reasonable public standards.”

Sinn Fein Cllr Paul Duffy also called on the Education Authority to provide a proper home to school Transport service for children traveling from Maghery to St John the Baptist’s College in Portadown.

Cllr Duffy said: “It is unacceptable that children have to wait until 5pm before getting a bus home.

“There is an onus on the E.A. to provide transport to these children which gets them home at a reasonable time.

“Children waiting on cold dark nights at the roadside for a bus is not safe.

“My colleague John O’Dowd MLA has raised this issue with the E.A. and I am backing his call for a speedy resolution to be found.”

A spokesperson for the Education Authority (EA) commented: “School transport policy is underpinned by the principle that parents try to enrol their children at the nearest suitable school. Pupils not attending their nearest suitable school may have access to fewer or less convenient travel options.

“We currently award travel passes to pupils travelling from schools in Portadown to Maghery that allow them to use Translink’s scheduled services.

“Whilst the scheduling of Translink network services is not a matter for EA, we do work closely to assess demand and review routes. We will discuss this matter further with Translink.”

An Education Authority (EA) spokesperson added: “EA supports pupils from all schools travelling together, where possible.

“Bus services are scheduled on the basis of the most efficient and cost effective service.”

The NI Children’s Commissioner confirmed this is a 'live matter' and is 'continuing to deal with the EA'.