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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

School Transport

A useful but important distraction from the General Election campaign came this morning with the launch of the Assembly's Education and Lifelong Learning Committee's report on School Transport. I had the privilege of launching it, the culmination of a year of taking evidence on the part of Committee members. The main recommendations are below:

· Safety is of paramount importance. The main reason for carrying out this review was to
improve the safety of school buses, and we believe much can be done to achieve this goal;
· Contractual arrangements for school transport should be more consistent and should
provide incentives for operators to invest in high quality vehicles and staff training. One
way of doing this is to adopt standard conditions across Wales and set them for periods of
between five and seven years, to allow operators to make a reasonable return on their
· Another way of making investment in new buses affordable is to encourage schools to
collaborate in staggering start and finish times, so as to facilitate the more efficient use of
school buses;
· School buses should be fitted with safety belts and pupils should be encouraged to use them;
· Double-decker buses should be phased out over the next five years and replaced with
single-decker coaches, or specialist vehicles - such as the one we examined this morning;
· More use should be made of closed circuit television and escorts, to discourage unruly
behaviour and bullying;
· Codes of conduct should be issued to all pupils and their parents, setting out the standards
expected and the penalties for failing to meet them. We consider that schools should
produce a clear policy for dealing with misconduct on school buses, with a graduated series
of penalties proportionate to the incident. Disciplinary procedures should be implemented
swiftly and consistently and should form part of a contract between school, pupil, parent and
bus company;
· Risk assessments should be carried out for the whole route, and these should be regularly
reviewed. There needs to be more clarity about who is responsible for safety and security
through all aspects of the school journey. We also consider that adult escorts may be
required on some routes and for all contracts involving children under 8 years old;
· Local authorities should review their internal administration of school transport provision,
and should set up a 'one stop shop' to provide information to schools, pupils and parents;
· The Assembly Government should issue guidance to better define roles and responsibilities
and to disseminate best practice;

The report will now be submitted to the Assembly's Education and Lifelong Learning Minister for a Government response within the next two months.
If the Assembly issues guidelines, do they become mandatory for any state school in Wales? Or, if something nasty happens, would a school's decision not to follow Assembly guidelines to the letter be taken into account when apportioning blame? What about the independent sector?

Staggering school start and finish times to suit bus operators seems a case of the tail wagging the dog, don't you think?

If you mandate the fitting of seatbelts, doesn't it make sense then to make the wearing of them mandatory?

Discipline will improve when you allow Heads to have the final say on exclusions, I think. I've got a horrible feeling that might be a Tory committment. I must be getting old.

Who is currently responsible? The LEA? The school? The bus company?

What's the tie-up with England and Scotland?
A lot of this depends on the legal powers of the Assembly. Some guidance is statutory, a lot of it is voluntary. I suspect these guidelines will be the latter but that does not make them any less potent as often the Assembly will work in partnership with the WLGA over a period of time to implement them. Hopefully, this should not be a matter of apportioning blame but of delivering reform. The independent sector will hopefully join in.

The issue of staggering school start times is not about suiting bus operators nor is it about profit as the Western Mail rather bizarrely alleges this morning. It is to secure the necessary economies of scale so as to justify the investment in new yellow buses (about £120,000 each - more with wheelchair access). This is about safety. It is not compulsory and it is up to LEAs and schools to work together with all stakeholders to see if it is something they want and can do.

I agree with mandating the wearing of seatbelts, however that is a primary law making matter outside of the Assembly's power. What can be done is to use CCTV to identify pupils who do not wear them and to exclude them from the school bus if they persist in acting that way or persist in misbehaving.

One of the problems with this issue is that responsibility for the school journey is not clear cut. By advocating comprehensive risk assessments we are hoping to tackle that issue.
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