Commons Gate

School travel (HC 911-ii)

Transport Committee 15 Oct 2008

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Evidence given by
Association of School and College Leaders, Mr Derek Bodey, Chair of the ASCL Learning and Skills Committee
National Association of Head Teachers, Ms Kathryn James, Senior Assistant Secretary, Mr Chris Harrison Head Teacher, Oulton Broad Primary School;
Modeshift, Ms Emma Sheridan, Chair;
Stagecoach Group Mr Les Warneford, Managing Director, Stagecoach UK Bus;
Confederation of Passenger Transport, Mr Steven Salmon, Director of Policy Development, Mr Giles Fearnley, President;
FirstGroup, Mr Leon Daniels, Commercial Director, UK Bus: uploaded on 21 October 2008

Q125 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I have got several different questions. The first one relates to the last, that in fact the cost of school transport limits some people to the choice of school. We do not have that situation in London, do we, because there is free transport? The fact is that poor parents do not get the choice because of the cost of travel. Is that not the case?

Mr Harrison: I think it is two things. It is not just the cost of the travel, Chairman, it is also the availability of the travel.

Q126 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Yes, but let us just concentrate on the cost. Let us talk about the cost. There are poor families who cannot send their children to the school of their choice because they cannot afford the transport. Is that not correct?

Mr Bodey: I would say that is correct. It is an inevitable consequence of having to pay, but there are ways around that and it does not necessarily have to be free to get around that. What you do need is a level playing field, such as there is in Bristol. If you have a bus pass, it will take you to any of the providers for the same cost and provide you with weekend travel.

Q127 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): So you equalise it out?

Mr Bodey: You equalise it out.

Ms Sheridan: I think generally that is an issue for some families, but what a lot of local authorities are now doing under the guise of the new JDs required under the Education and Inspections Act is looking at those different issues and looking particularly at low income families and where and for which schools and in which areas in particular that is posing a problem, and with the new sustainable modes of travel strategies which are currently being written and developed and consulted upon at local authority level measures are starting to be put in place to address those issues. We are not going to solve it overnight, but there is a genuine will at local authority level to work to fix these issues and to make sure that wherever possible and within budgeting constraints transport is not a barrier to young people accessing the education they deserve.

Q128 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Can I just go on to another thing which confuses me? There is a statutory limit for free travel, or whatever, which is a bit confusing. I am recently even more confused because I have a case where in this computer age you can Google an address and Google the school and I find that this school is outside two miles for a primary school, but the local authority bases its sums by some other way. What system does the local authority use for measuring distances between schools and home? Is it just the cheapest way they do it so that they can get out of paying, or what?

Ms James: It actually varies from local authority to local authority, particularly within some of the Inner London authorities, if I can use them as examples, because I can quote that. They literally are in some cases actually counting the steps up to flats to make sure which is closer and what the distance is, but some will do it as the crow flies, but those are questionable in terms of admissions.

Q129 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): So what you are saying is that there is no common national system for measuring the distance?

Ms James: No.

Mr Bodey: No.

Q130 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Do you believe that there should be?

Mr Bodey: Yes, there should be.

Q131 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): My final question is, are schools inflexible? In my own experience I came across a situation where the train arrived five minutes too late and the school refused to let those children travel by train and they simplistically believed it was easy to change the train timetables. Anybody who knows how they do train timetables knows that it is not! Is there not an inflexibility with schools about when exactly children should be there?

Ms James: Forgive me, but it is almost simplistic to say there is an inflexibility. If you look at the situation of extended schools, for example, and the extended school day and the way that transport can bring children into school - and since my son writes train timetables I do understand exactly what you are talking about -

Q132 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): He must be very clever!

Ms James: It is very, very difficult, but also do not forget that there is an expectation on a school that the majority of pupils will be in lessons at particular times and there must be arrangements to make.

Q133 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): It brings me on to the question of using yellow buses and whether we should have different schools starting at different times. Is that sensibly put?

Ms Sheridan: If I could just go back to your previous point, I would actually say I do not believe that schools are inflexible at all. I think experience has taught me, and certainly our members, that actually schools have been very flexible, very supportive of different ways of addressing the transport needs and issues. There may be the occasional individual school which is unprepared to change, there always is with any group, but we have certainly found that schools have embraced this and have on several occasions changed school uniform policy and have changed timings to accommodate where we have not been able to change a train time, change a bus schedule, or whatever, although sometimes it works the other way and we are actually able to, through the Travel Plans process and opening the lines of communication between those in the education community and those in the transport community. Sometimes we can change bus timetables and train timetables. I think it is unfair to slight all the schools based on one example. On the issue of yellow buses - and this is very much a personal opinion as it is quite a contentious issue across the country - where they work they work very well, but they should not be seen to be the answer to all problems in all places.

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Q146 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Coming back to the use of yellow buses or the equivalent, as I rapidly approach the age when I am going to get a bus pass my idea of hell would be to get on a bus with secondary school children at half past eight in the morning! We are in the situation where we have free travel now for pensioners and although officially it only starts at 9.30 a lot of local authorities have it before. Is there any evidence that this mix creates problems and would it not be better if the children were taken separately to school? It would create a lot less blood pressure amongst the elderly!

Ms Sheridan: I think wherever you get large groups of children you are going to get noise, you are going to get banter, and what a lot of people perceive to be antisocial behaviour is at its heart just kids being kids. I think you do not necessarily achieve anything by segregating people. Children will not learn and people will not learn how to behave on public transport with other people if they are never exposed to it and never have that choice. Huge success has been found in a lot of areas where communities have worked together with schools through School Travel Plans being facilitated by the School Travel Advisor, worked with youth workers and worked with local community groups to engender an understanding and therefore a respect between both sides of those kinds of disputes and I think it is only through that that we can actually change those attitudes.

Q147 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): That is all very nice, but my experience is that a lot of the elderly people decide to travel later because of that perceived problem.

Mr Bodey: I think nonetheless it is a perceived problem and I think it is actually important as a society that we do not segregate. I think it is actually important that we learn to live with each other and actually learn to cope with each other and to respect each other. I think there is an element of education about the behaviour of young people, but if they are not exposed to actually living in the adult world and they are always segregated from it they will not grow up into functioning adults.

Q148 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): So what you are saying is that the segregation which the yellow bus would achieve is detrimental for society?

Ms Sheridan: Potentially.

Mr Bodey: I think there is a potential danger that it will actually cause dysfunction.

Mr Harrison: I think that the yellow bus concept may be appropriate for some ages of children, but when you get into 14-19 and you have a range of partners delivering different lines and diplomas you cannot have that many yellow buses. I entirely concur with Mr Bodey because I think it is about developing something within society which is a community resource and that that community resource should not just be for schools and should not just be for any distinct group, it is rather that the school day is extending and extending schools is about moving from 8.00 until 6.00. So children are moving around in communities between 8.00 and 6.00 and you cannot segregate the elderly between 9.00 in the morning and 3.00 because these days with 14-19 year olds there is always going to be movement. An element of the healthy schools strand is actually about minds and attitudes as much as it is about the food they eat, and how you work with the people within your community is a key challenge, a key strand to the work we do.

Q149 Chairman: It has been said that using yellow buses would free up capacity on public transport. Are you aware of the problems on public transport caused by students and pupils?

Mr Bodey: Certainly in my case, Chairman, we cause difficulty for the regular users, but the way to solve that is about increasing the capacity of public transport, it is not about segregation and putting yellow buses on the road.

Q150 Chairman: You think there is a problem, though, in your experience?

Mr Bodey: There are bound to be problems in terms of peak travel and the number of people wishing to access a limited service. The bus company will tell you that the most expensive bus to put on is a rush hour bus because their whole fleet is already out in operation. If you want a bus at three oíclock in the afternoon it is relatively easy and cheap, but it is about increasing the capacity of public transport so that all users benefit. It is not about segregating for what is an expensive option. Yellow buses are much more expensive than putting another public bus on and in many cases in my area it would be solved by having a double-decker instead of a single-decker on the bus route.

Ms James: I think it is worth saying, though, something Emma said before, that there is not one solution which fits every option and there are some cases where actually yellow buses, or let us call them dedicated school transport, are actually the only really feasible option and that is not ideal. There are particular issues, I think, within inner-city areas where public transport is used and there is congestion, but I think Derek is right, that actually somehow society education must go on as well.

Ms Sheridan: I think we need to be careful as well about not just assuming that just because there is congestion at peak hours on bus travel that is solely down to the school run. Pretty much everybody goes to work. You are not going to tell people not to go to work because the buses are overcrowded, so I think we need to be careful about not necessarily blaming all of the problems which occur on peak hour bus journeys on young people. Also, as we said, there are other ways in which we can free up capacity. We are doing a lot of work with schools whereby we are encouraging those children who are coming on public transport, where they are travelling relatively short journeys, to get off the bus and to walk or cycle, which is freeing up capacity as well. So there are lots of different options and is about choosing the right option for each individual school or local area rather than a one-size-fits-all, because we have tried that with different things in the past and it does not always works.

Mr Bodey: There is an alternative way of looking at it. As a college we run some coaches for students from areas where the public transport does not reach. There are members of the public who would like to get on those coaches but they cannot because of the licensing regulations, so we could actually be looking at a planned provision of public transport which is more effective for everybody.

Q151 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Tell me more about these licences. Perhaps our next witnesses can. I have people who come in from the rural areas, students, not the same as 12-year-olds, but the public cannot get on those buses?

Mr Bodey: I cannot run a public bus service without being a registered bus operator and a licensee. I can run a private coach for members of my community without such a licence.

Q152 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Even though it would be a private bus operator who would be operating it?

Mr Bodey: Even though it would be a private bus operator who is running it, yes. There are other examples of that incongruity. I have a park and ride outside my college door. It would make eminent sense if my students could use the park and ride from the city centre out, because those are empty in the morning, and use them in the evening to get back in because they are empty then as far as the general public is concerned, but the licensing agreement and the law will not allow it.

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Q170 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I feel there may be a consensus here, but then again I could well be wrong. At present we have the situation - if we can talk about secondary schools as opposed to primary - where children, if they live so far away, get there free and if they do not live that distance they have to pay the full cost. Is there a sort of view that there should be a standard cost, a small fee for everybody so that that will put out the difficulty of people who cannot afford to go to that school? Is there a consensus amongst yourselves on that?

Mr Harrison: I think with some of the challenges that are coming up we are into a mixed economy of what schools and the education experience looks like and I think we are only just beginning to see the journey that 14-19 will map out for us all. If you have a nominal cost or a nominal charge -

Q171 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Say 50p.

Mr Harrison: If it was 50p, with some of the 14-19 strands and options it will be 50p to one and then 50p later to another and 50p to another, and then 50p home. So you will be incurring a whole range of different costs according to which options children or young people are going for and I would not really want to -

Q172 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): If you quote the worst case scenario nothing will happen, will it, Mr Harrison?

Mr Harrison: The worst case scenario would be what is happening now, I think, which is that increasingly childrenís options, access and opportunities are often influenced very heavily by the availability of transport rather than their particular interest or level of expertise, or their flow of direction for their future career options.

Ms James: I would like to pick up on something that Chris has just said in terms of the 14-19 issue, which is of particular concern to us. While we recognise that actually there is a lot of significant work that has gone on with local authorities and with schools and across the organisations in terms of planning and in terms of travel planning, we are very concerned that actually there has not been sufficient planning in terms of the various transport needs with regard to 14-19 and the raising of the participation age. Your question of cost is a primary example because, of course, if people are having to meet between providers there is the time element, the congestion element and there is the cost element that it would concern.

Ms Sheridan: I think it sounds on the face of it quite a nice idea, that everybody across the whole country pays a certain amount to get to the school. I think one of the things you really have to bear in mind is the difference in the actual real cost on the ground, particularly in rural areas where it can be significantly more expensive to run specific routes to specific institutions. Those expenses may not exist particularly in high urban areas and that would have to be determined within the enforcing.

Q173 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): But these are the areas which tend to get free travel as opposed to the urban areas where people have to pay, so the cost is already borne by the local authority?

Ms Sheridan: Not necessarily in all cases, but there is a real issue of how to fund these things, particularly in rural areas. The other option is if you reduce those travel costs across the board, the money has got to come from somewhere to pay for them and local authorities are already very cash-strapped, particularly when it comes to transport provision.

Mr Bodey: I think whether it is at 11 or whether it is at 14, given the choice that is coming into the curriculum from 14 onwards there needs to be a national scheme which is equal across the country, which meets the needs of all travellers in the choices they make for their educational provision because it is going to be a very mixed picture as to how people travel.

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Q192 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): On this issue, because it affects the people you represent every day as the bus operators, what work are you doing to come up with a solution to this? It is in the middle of your business. You are the bus operators and there is a problem for rights in society and this, that and the other. Are any of the bus companies doing any work to try and alleviate this problem?

Mr Salmon: Well, there is more than a little training that goes on specifically to help drivers deal with the situation, and any other staff we have got, of the work. There is liaison with schools and actually there is an art of allocating people to work that you know they are going to be all right with, because certain people just do not like driving buses full of kids and the kids donít like them, and it all goes wrong. But from a day to day operational point of view you can actually manage your way around some of these issues.

Q193 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Is there anything more that can be done? Is there any sort of research of evidence? It is a problem of some sort, is it not?

Mr Fearnley: I doubt if there is research on this point. Picking up Mr Salmonís point, it is certainly normally very valuable if it can be so allocated that the same driver operates the same school journey. That is a lot easier on a school contract run than it is if it is a local bus service where the schedule will be much larger and the drivers will rotate. In fact very often it provides a link which is very valuable because the children know they will see the driver the next day and if the driver is good at his job, as Mr Salmon has outlined, then the relationship normally works.

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Q208 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): One of our earlier witnesses, I think it was the gentleman who is the principal of a college, made the comment that he had special buses for students and part of the time the park and ride system was running empty and the licensing laws stopped them from actually being used for picking up the public passengers. Is that a nonsense? Is it an advantage to the public?

Mr Salmon: May I come in on the position? It is slightly complicated. If as a licensed operator you want to offer a service to the public so that you can pick up anybody, then you have to essentially publish the timetable and commit yourself to running it at those times on the days you say you are going to. The life of colleges tends to be such that remarkably often they donít stick to their standard times. They want to start late or they want to finish early. So if you want a dedicated service for the college students you cannot register it under the public system because you would then have to commit to doing the same thing every day. So you have got the choice to do it. No one is saying you canít do it that way. You can register it as a public bus service, but once you have registered it you have got to run it every day whether it is needed or not, strictly speaking. As far as people not being able to travel the wrong way on park and ride, that is peculiar. There is no licensing reason sitting behind that. That is eminently solvable if whoever is in charge of the park and ride wants it to be.

Q209 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): So it is just the belief that the regulator will not allow it, it is not the reality?

Mr Salmon: It is very peculiar. It will be the contract conditions for that particular park and ride that will be prohibiting travel for students. Occasionally, if I can enlarge, with park and ride people are worried that the general public will find the service so useful that drivers will get crowded off, so they put a condition on the contract that the only people who can use the service are people who have parked their cars in the car park. But the example we had earlier on was one which I would have thought calls for a bit more flexibility than that.

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Q216 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Coming back to what you said originally, Mr Warneford, the issue of concessionary fares is an issue of district councils. I suspect in this case we agree with each other, that basically the education authority should be the authority - it is normally the county areas - which deals with concessionary fares, especially if they are going to talk about concessionary fares for young children as well? Do we agree on that?

Mr Warneford: I think there should be one local transport authority. If that is the county council, then that works for us, yes. I donít think it is for us to say how local government should be organised, but working with one authority on everything certainly works better.

Q217 Chairman: Thank you. If I could just ask you finally, if we just return to those yellow buses, if there was a national scheme of yellow buses would transport operators become unviable? Would it be a threat?

Mr Warneford: You are looking at me, Chairman. Stagecoach would not. Many small operators are very concerned that if there are very prescriptive rules about the way in which a yellow school bus might be manufactured and used - particularly in the rural areas small firms survive on a great mix of different kinds of work. They have got a school contract, a bit of private hire work. They might do a day trip at a weekend. They might even run the odd tour in the summer. They need all that different work to make their businesses viable. If you restrict the type of vehicle so it can only do school work and it does not satisfy the conditions and use for a public service vehicle, they are extremely worried about their businesses.

Chairman: Thank you very much.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): It is good to hear you say that Stagecoach is concerned about the small companies!

Chairman: On that note we will end. Thank you very much for coming and giving evidence to us.

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