Commons Gate

School Travel (HC 911-i)

Transport Committee 2 Jul 2008

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Evidence given by:
2.45 South Yorkshire Strategic Education Transport Group, David Brown, Chairman, Cheshire County Council, Janet Mills, Sustainable School Travel Team Manager Steve Williams, Strategic Manager, Public and Mainstream School Transport, Merseyside Local Transport Plan Partnership, Sarah Dewar, TravelWise Co-ordinator
3.45 Passenger Transport Executive Group, Neil Scales, Chairman Sheena Pickersgill, Director Corporate Services, MetroTransport for London, Ben Plowden, Director, Smarter Travel Unit, John Barry, Head of Network Development, London Buses.

Q13 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Just a slightly contrary view. The reasons for parents taking their children to school are complex. With some of them it may just be distance, some of them are frightened they will be knocked over on the roads as they walk or cycle, and thirdly they do not want them on the school buses. That could mean that while motorists will reduce their travelling in other ways, they will still stick to the school run because they think it is a priority.

Mr Brown: I think that is one of the issues. The fuel price at the moment is a fairly short-term issue that has hit hard on people trying to scale back expenditure, but that is against a backdrop of people owning cars and travelling more, and dispersed patterns of education and employment. We often see people dropping children off on the way to work and therefore they would still be doing the journey. There is a historic and sustainable growth in the use of the car against which this fuel increase is a small-scale blip that may not continue. What we need to do is demonstrate and persuade people to use non-car-based modes for ever, not just while the price is high, because if the price of fuel were ever to decline, people would go back to using their car. It is about getting them to understand that you need to transfer to non-car modes on a permanent basis.


Q35 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Just on this, but following a different tack than Mr Wilshire, what I am hearing today from yourselves is that good parents let their children walk to school, or they walk with them or they cycle; bad parents bring the children by car. That is what you are saying, is it not? That is what the implication of the message is.

Ms Mills: I do not think that is true because we still support some people who travel by car.

Q36 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): But in general you are saying good parents do not bring their children by car. You can understand why parents will get a bit upset by that.

Mr Brown: I do not think it is as simple as saying it is good and bad parents. Where we find people that are informed parents, they might make a different choice. We are not saying that, just because they drive their children to school, they are bad parents but what we find is they do not necessarily understand all the implications of doing that, therefore making them more informed---

Q37 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Do you think that is (inaudible)?

Mr Brown: No, I think through the School Travel Plan, advisors, and the work we have done with schools, being able to explain... The children pick up on it very quickly, that large numbers of cars milling around outside as they are trying to cross the road is not a very healthy approach, and actually, it is not the children who make the decision; it is the parents, and trying to explain the broader benefits both to them and their children is the important aspect we try and deliver through School Travel Plans.

Q38 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): You have a School Travel Plan, which is to reduce the amount of children being brought by car, therefore, if people are not complying with that, they are not complying with what the school wants. Is that what you are saying? "You should be but you are not going to do it, so you are a bad parent"?

Ms Dewar: Just to back up what colleagues are saying, it is not about bad parents or good parents. It is about making sensible choices when there are choices to be made. There are some children who are travelling distances to schools through some of the choice programmes and so on that we have where they have no alternative but to bring the car to school, and there are some who are travelling very short distances where they do have an option or where they maybe have an option one day a week.

Q39 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): So they are the bad parents then.

Ms Dewar: We have done a lot of research into the psychology behind why people make the transport decisions that they do in Merseyside, and what we try to do with all the campaigns we run through schools is to address the reasons why people are making those decisions, and that is because they want to be in control of their journey, they want it to be affordable, they want it to be reliable. What we need to do is to demonstrate to them that cycling or walking or using public transport for some of those journeys can also meet their needs whereas they often perceive that it does not. In that way we can tackle the people who have an alternative choice, and enable them to make that choice, which in many cases is better. A lot of the feedback that we get from parents through the School Travel Advisors is that when parents do actually take the time to walk with their children, they find a whole host of benefits that they did not anticipate. So it is not about being critical; it is about recognising that, as a society as a whole, we have become car-dependent and to change that trend we have to start reinforcing some of the benefits of sustainable transport that we have lost sight of.


Q44 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Just on this, and I probably should have been aware because I voted for the Act in 2006. It is coming in from September this year? The new concessions are there from September?

Mr Williams: One or two aspects came in in 2007 in terms of the preparation needed but the actual delivery will start in September.

Q45 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Sitting here is a Member, it did not register that this was happening, and I suspect in my area it did not register because the local authority did not tell anybody, to be honest. I think an issue of finance was mentioned. Has that been the case in your authorities? Has there been a lot of publicity about this? Obviously, youngsters going to secondary school would have taken a decision, and some of them would have taken a decision on cost, probably in March or even earlier. Was there a lot of publicity given to this new scheme or not?

Mr Williams: I would have to say I would be satisfied that there was, in terms of the booklets that go out to parents and schools, et cetera, setting out the provisions of the new policy, and they are very widely distributed within the communities, particularly in Cheshire: they are available within schools, they are sent out to parents, there is a whole range of distribution methods to try and target the information so it gets to the right audience. So I would have to say yes.

Q46 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): My experience of that is it would tend to be the middle class parents that read these booklets and therefore take advantage of the provision. You would agree with that. Was there any local publicity in the press or anything about this?

Mr Williams: I think it is fair to say it was publicised in the press locally. Also, there are Choice Officers who assist in getting these messages through, and I think they are aware of the families that they need to target, particularly those who, as you say, might not necessarily read this information. They know who these people are because they are working in that environment and they can target where that information goes to ensure they are aware of any new rights or opportunities that come their way.

Q47 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Is that the same for the other authorities?

Mr Brown: In South Yorkshire my colleagues in the local authority said for low income families that receive free school meals we have visibility of that database and can therefore do the blanket thing and approach them, but with people on maximum Working Tax Credit, we do not have visibility of who those people are, and therefore directly contacting them and making them aware of it is a more difficult issue for us.

Q48 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): What about the one where you can actually choose a different school within six miles?

Mr Brown: We have done the same as Cheshire. It has been included with all the information that has gone out to people, but again, we have not gone back to people, because my understanding is we do not have visibility of who the families on maximum Working Tax Credit are. Having visibility will allow us to do more direct contact with those families.


Q90 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Just to follow up some of the points you made, one of them is that as a result of the free bus system in London there appears to be a reduction in the number of people walking, is that correct, especially from primary schools. You said there is probably double the number of children at primary school using buses.

Mr Barry: It is true to say that some of the people using the bus were walking before, that is correct.

Q91 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): So it actually adverse to what you wanted - what was said earlier was that people should be walking, cycling, using the bus and then the car.

Mr Barry: I do not think the share of walking itself has gone down though from 2001 to 2006.

Q92 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): You said that before the free buses were introduced there were 7% of primary schoolchildren who used to go by bus and now it is 13%.

Mr Barry: That is right.

Q93 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): That says to me that they are now jumping on the bus because it is free.

Mr Plowden: I am not sure that we know where the shift to bus has come from. We can certainly let you have the information.

Q94 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): What we would accept is that if you give free buses people who used to walk will jump on the bus, there is a downside to it.

Mr Barry: In the primary schools over that period there has been a reduction in car use but the amount of walking has stayed about the same. As I said before, that is from our rolling household survey so you have to be a bit careful because although 7% to 13% is a big proportional change, those are small shares within the total and one has to be a bit careful about these rolling surveys. I would agree, obviously, that some of the shifts onto buses must have come from walking but I do not have information here today about the chain of changes that may have gone on.

Mr Plowden: We can certainly let you have that.

Q95 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Mr Scales, you mentioned Bikeability when you were talking about school transport plans. Are we just talking about letting youngsters jump on their bike and ride to school, because that would be very dangerous would it not?

Mr Scales: We teach them not just to jump on the bike and just go round the playground, we teach them how to operate properly on the roads and navigate around roundabouts and all the rest of it. What we are trying to do is not just be part of the school travel plan, as I said before it is part of tackling child obesity and just getting them more active. We will have done about 32,000 by the end of this year.

Q96 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Sorry, I have not explained myself. In most school transport plans do the youngsters have to actually do this training before they are allowed to cycle?

Mr Scales: That is right.

Q97 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Is that usually compulsory?

Mr Scales: We say it is because there is no point in putting kids on the road and them being a danger to themselves and the traffic, so we say do the Bikeability programme and then you are safe to go on the road.

Q98 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Is there a rule that you have to do it before you can come to school, that is all I am saying?

Mr Scales: No, because you will get some parents who are really into cycling and will train the kids up anyway, so those parents we do not have to capture, we have already got them, it is the ones that we have not got.

Q99 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Are there any rules on what protective clothing or headgear they should wear?

Mr Scales: Yes, we say the proper headgear and we train them properly in how to use the cycle safely and also how to maintain the cycle so that they are not a danger to themselves from the cycle itself. We have experts that go into the schools and do all the training and they are taken out on the road in convoy. So it is not a case that they are just let out on the road, we do it very professionally and very safely and the Bikeability actually does that in levels. The guys who do this do nothing else but cycle training so they are experts.

Q100 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): It is not the old police constable like it used to be.

Mr Scales: No, these are professionals. The other thing we do on the hard side is if you take Merseyrail Electrics, our train operating company, they will carry bicycles free all day, so will the ferries and the rest of the PTEs are putting bike stands into schools as well, so we are trying to get it out into the community. It is the point that Sarah Dewar made earlier, it is about blurring the edges, it is not just a single shop school travel plan, you have to keep on refreshing it all the time. We are working with the district councils on safer walking routes to school, making sure you design out bad bends in kerbs, putting all the physical stuff in as well because there is a direct correlation between kids that are killed and seriously injured on the roads and areas of multiple deprivation.

Q101 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): There certainly is.

Mr Scales: What we are trying to do is joined-up government really and trying to spread it across all different areas rather than just concentrating on one of them.

Q102 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): On another tack, these are fairly complicated systems of changing people's habits; what about just staggering school hours? Is this part of the plan?

Mr Scales: That would help a lot. If we could actually get school hours to be staggered across the PTE sector we would probably save a lot of bus provision and if you can save a lot of bus provision you can spread your resource further, so we are working within the PTE Groups, so in the metropolitan areas, and talking to head teachers and just getting them to stagger the school opening and closing hours by 10 to 15 minutes would make a hell of a difference because you would need less buses in the peak, and they are very spiky peaks. If you can flatten the peaks out you need less buses.

Q103 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): You give me the impression this is a difficult thing to do.

Mr Scales: Yes. They are not entirely receptive to our overtures, they are more interested in what is best for the schools, so we have to keep on putting our point of view forward very forcefully.

Q104 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Is this the experience of the rest of you?

Mr Barry: It is certainly for us.

Chairman: If it is the same you do not need to repeat it, only if it is something different.

Q105 Clive Efford: How much would you have to stagger the opening hours by?

Mr Scales: 15 to 20 minutes. Five minutes in the bus world is a long time.

Ms Pickersgill: We have had some experience in West Yorkshire with the yellow bus scheme where we have actually worked with schools to stagger hours. It has not been quite as successful as we wanted it to be in some areas and we have had to do a lot of persuading but certainly in the early days when we were coming forward with the yellow bus scheme schools were very willing to actually work with us to look at how they could stagger hours.

Q106 Chairman: You have had some success in that area.

Ms Pickersgill: We have had some success there, yes.

Q107 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): This is because the yellow buses are dedicated, are they not?

Ms Pickersgill: That is right, and they wanted the yellow buses so they were willing to sit down and talk to us, yes.

Mr Scales: They have also had some success in Greater Manchester.

Q108 Chairman: Has anybody done any specific work on the impact of the new school diploma and the new entitlements for free travel on school buses?

Mr Scales: Not in the PTE Group, Chairman.

Q109 Chairman: Do you think that the terms of free school transport should be decided nationally or locally?

Mr Scales: Nationally. We are quite interested in free school travel but one of the things we are interested in is for term time only, to get them to and from school, rather than like our colleagues in Transport for London who have extended it beyond that. We think it should be a national scheme because then you have much more consistency of purpose across England rather than pockets like the metropolitan areas that are doing it, or maybe the shires are doing it. A national scheme would be a lot better, Chairman.

Q110 Chairman: What about the current statutory walking distance? Do you think that is still acceptable?

Mr Scales: It was set in the 1944 Education Act. I think the earlier witnesses covered the point, Chairman, it is a bit out of date really and what is right now might be something more flexible.

Ms Pickersgill: I would agree with that. The travel distances need to be updated; even when we are talking about distances of a mile it depends where the children live. If they live next door to a busy road or a motorway I would think even a mile is too far sometimes, it really does depend on the areas that we are talking about and where children are walking. The eligibility criteria can sometimes impose a lot of bureaucracy and there are costs associated with that.

Q111 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I may be wrong but have local authorities not got discretion so if there is a busy road they can actually decide to put a bus on, they have the discretion.

Ms Pickersgill: Yes. The question in terms of how far it is reasonable for children to walk, the two miles at eight or three miles over, they are long distances actually for children of that age.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Arguably the children are healthier now than they were in 1944.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

The full transcript may be read here.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB