We need to talk about school transport

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When I was five years old, I used to travel home from school by bus. Bizarrely, I can still remember one of the bus driver’s names. Well, his nickname anyway. It was Peachy.

The elephant in the room: We’ve demonstrated schools can be re-opened, but how will pupils get to England’s schools in September?

I can also recall what Peachy’s bus was like. It had more than a few miles on the clock and was meant to be yellow or orange, but the grime that was smeared over the exterior from driving down country lanes meant it was an off-putting shade of brown.

The school bus would drive me the four-or-so miles from the nearby town and drop me at the end of a single-track lane. My grandmother would meet me and together we’d walk the final mile home to the tiny hamlet where we lived.

They are happy memories of a time when I was a small child. Those memories have taken on a whole new significance since Education Secretary Gavin Williamson explained how schools would operate in England when the autumn term gets underway in September.

In among talk of ‘bubbles’ for different classes and year groups (expected), ‘testing’ of pupils with symptoms (again, expected) and ‘fines’ for parents who don’t send their children back to school (not the correct approach in my opinion), were a couple of significant details that have attracted hardly any attention. If you look closely at the guidance, school transport has the potential to be an absolute nightmare in September.

Unless there’s a change in the guidance or absolutely phenomenal investment at great speed, the school run has the potential to look like the Mumbai rush hour. On a bad day.

Why so? Well, pupils will be expected to travel in separate groups on school buses. This assumes there are school buses. To directly quote the guidance, use of public transport, “should be kept to an absolute minimum.” Throw into this mix the fact parents have got to get children to and from schools that have staggered start and end times and you have the makings for a logistical nightmare of epic proportions.

If you only have one child attending one school, things could be quite straightforward. Our family is one of many, the majority probably, where this does not apply. By September I will have two children at two different schools that are several miles apart. I have absolutely no idea how I am going to handle this.

If start and end times are staggered significantly, I might just be able to drive them both (emphasis on “just.”). Even so, I absolutely do not want to do this. Not only would it be environmentally damaging, but it could easily take three hours out of my day, especially if every other parent does the same thing and the roads get choked.

It is the responsibility of local authorities to ensure transport is available so children can get to and from school. Provision differs in different areas. Where we live there are very good public transport networks. As a result, no dedicated transport is available to secondary school students and provision for primary school children is minimal.

You’ve noticed the Catch 22 haven’t you? Yup, that’s right, Government guidance dissuades use of public transport to get to school, yet in many areas there is no other option.

I took a look at my old primary school’s website to see what its transport provision is like in the 21st Century. Times have changed. The school had a 17-point car parking and driving policy on the website but not a single word about any other kind of transport. I suspect Peachy would take a dim view of this.

Yes, okay, there has been talk of cycle lanes and walking to school. That’s great for people who live in urban environments who live within walking distance of school. When all is said and done, that doesn’t apply to many families.

To use a cliché, transport is the elephant in the room when England’s schools re-open in September. It opens up so many questions, especially for people who have a child starting at a new school and chose a certain school because of its transport links. The situation in rural communities, for blended families, single parent families and so on could be incredibly complicated. Many families will also have different children in different school years and with staggered start and end times, it could take forever to get them in and out of school.

I appreciate the Government is trying to make the most of a complicated, unprecedented situation. To its credit, it has asked local authorities to consult with parents to ensure “transport is available to those who need it most.”

Nonetheless, it has made a very odd comparison saying the 2012 Olympics showed it is possible to make a very real difference to transport patterns. I’m probably missing something, but I don’t see how that compares with getting eight-year-old Joshua and Jane to their school on the North Yorkshire Moors on a rainy November morning.

Schools have remained open and provided teaching to some pupils over the past few months. We’ve seen what can be done in the classroom. Everyone has been looking at the classroom with very little consideration as to how pupils will actually get there. There are two months to iron this out and I think it needs addressing rapidly.

If you have any solutions or ideas about how to solve this problem, do let me know. If you have any ideas about how I can be in two places at pretty much the same time, please do pass them on. Who knows, maybe Peachy can be persuaded to come out of retirement?

2 thoughts on “We need to talk about school transport”

  1. I almost feel guilty for having it easy. My two eldest are at a Secondary school in walking distance. We had to move the youngest to a primary school a bit further away and he’s taken by his Dad in the car. So I don’t really see a problem in transport. I do see a problem in actually getting them to go back though. Yes, they’ve missed school and their friends, but non of them want to return to a changed atmosphere, changed routines, and changed layouts. They are all really anxious and I can see the return to be a lot more complicated than any other return to school in September.

    1. Woah yes. I know exactly what you mean. Even though my eldest will be starting at a new school, I think the return to school in September will be easier for her as she has had a few weeks at school in Year Six in a socially distanced routine. She’ll be half-expecting the changes. My youngest, she’s not in a priority year so essentially won’t have been in school for six months and neither will her peers. The same can be said for most children. It’s going to be tough on them and their teachers.

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