The cost of ‘free’ school transport for students of church and private schools is costing taxpayers more than three times the initial estimate by the government when the scheme was introduced in 2018, according to the National Audit Office.
In 2018, when the introduction of ‘free’ school transport to all students was launched, with the stated aim of easing traffic congestion, then Education Minister Evarist Bartolo had said a total of 14,000 additional students were expected to start using the service with an increased cost to the exchequer of some €10 million.
Quoting a study commissioned by the government from auditing firm Grant Thornton, Bartolo had said the government would be spending a total of €18 million a year to provide school transport for all students attending State schools and private schools.
Yet a recent audit by the NAO found that both the government and Grant Thornton were entirely off the mark.
Also, for some unknown reason, the government is paying service providers twice the amount paid for a similar service for state schools, even though the number of users is similar.
Data provided by the NAO based on the last scholastic year shows that the government forked out €44 million for the ‘free transport’ scheme.
Digging deeper into the data reveals a more worrying situation. While free school transport for some 13,000 state school students cost €14 million, the costs for the transport of 16,000 Church and private school children reached €30 million last year – three times more than anticipated by the government just a few years earlier.
The NAO audit saw flaws in how the system was introduced, possibly amounting to fraud and blatant abuse by service providers. Yet Finance Minister Clyde Caruana budgeted another €54 million to pay for next year’s ‘free’ transport system.
The NAO found that while the system adopted in the State schools is somewhat under control, even though no effective monitoring is taking place, payments forked out for private and Church schools depend on information passed onto the ministry by the same service providers.
The NAO discovered that the Education Ministry has “no means to confirm the routes claimed by the service providers” and underlined that “this is exposing the ministry to potential abuse from the part of service providers, ranging from dummy applications and inflated routes.”
The Auditor General found that the government is not exerting any control over the system in Church and private schools, clearly introduced without proper planning in 2018, with inspections to check whether the service is being given, to whom and whether vans are carrying the declared number of students almost non-existent.
The NAO said that during the audited scholastic year, only three physical inspections were conducted, reaching some 19 trips from the 5,000 claimed daily.