CASH-STRAPPED education boards should not be cutting transport assistance to pupils and compromising their safety on the roads, East Belfast MLA Naomi Long and Alliance Party Education Spokesperson has said.
Councillor Long said that pupils of Lagan College were being placed in real danger because of the removal of transport assistance – a move based on a survey that failed even to abide by the South Eastern Education and Library Board’s own criteria.
Cllr Long stated: “Transport assistance was initially taken away from Lagan College pupils in the Cregagh, Braniel and Lisnasharragh areas because the Board carried out a survey that concluded that there was no longer an exceptional safety hazard on the Manse and Church roads.
“However, this survey was fundamentally flawed and the result has concerned the PSNI as well as myself and other public representatives. I simply cannot believe that SEELB would carry out a survey to determine how safe a road is for schoolchildren at 11.30am on July 23 last year, at the height of the holiday season and outside peak traffic hours.
“This is in direct contravention of the Board’s own guidelines, and although the Board admitted it didn’t carry out a full traffic count, it did admit that traffic on these roads was at least normal to heavy. Yet it has still dealt with the issue as though cars rarely travelled on these busy thoroughfares, assessing the roads as “lightly trafficked”.
“On one hand we are told that the Board is “not suggesting that any child should walk to school”, yet on the other hand they are assessing the road as a “walked route”.
“This “walked route” is so safe that when I spoke to the PSNI, they told me that there were 10 road traffic collisions in the six months from April to September 2004 on the section of Manse Road between Lagan College and the Ballygowan Road alone. Yet this wasn’t even considered by the Board.
“This is disgraceful, and the cash-strapped Board is leaving itself open to accusations that it is prepared to risk the lives of pupils in order to save money.
“Now the Belfast Board has asked for Lagan College pupils in its area to hand back their free bus passes and walk along Manse Road. I suspect this is based on the SEELB survey and is following their lead.
“I am also concerned that many parents, particularly those on low incomes or with more than one child at the school, will suffer significant financial hardship as a result not only of the decision of the BELB itself but also of the speed at which it has been implemented, allowing no time for parents to budget for the additional and unexpected costs of transport.
“It is widely accepted that unexpected costs and expenses are the factor most likely to drive those on low incomes into a spiral of debt. The end result of this decision could be that children will simply be more frequently absent from school because the family simply cannot afford the transport costs.
“I have already written twice to the Education Minister to inform him of the situation.”