Home School Travel for the start of the new school year

Published

By Mary Evans, deputy leader and Cabinet member for children’s services, education and skills at Suffolk County Council.

The start of this school term will be a particularly anxious time for families, with many children and young people heading back to school after five months at home. We have been working closely with schools to ensure that parents can be confident in sending their children back to school. This has included putting measures in place to ensure that all 12,000 pupils, who are eligible for council funded school and post 16 travel, are transported to school safely from the start of the new term. Last week we finalised plans and I am pleased to say we have made travel arrangements for every eligible pupil. Every parent/carer will have heard from us advising them of the school travel arrangements that have been made for their child.

Of all the many Covid-19 challenges that Suffolk County Council has faced, the problems posed in transporting children to school safely have been among the biggest hurdles to overcome. The Department for Education published official guidance, on 11 August, on the measures needed to ensure that school transport is covid-19 safe. The Passenger Transport Team has worked to this guidance to produce a raft of different options for securing school transport for the coming term. This has involved planning and organising transport across three types of travel routes:

  1. Dedicated closed contract - bus, coach, minibus or taxi service which carries school/college pupils only 
  2. Shared Contract - bus routes where most passengers are pupils going to school or college but there are also a few members of the public
  3. Public transport route - bus and train routes which are used mainly by the general public but there are a few pupils or college students travelling

The challenge for us has involved trying to predict how many fare paying passengers – members of the public - there will be on shared and public routes. Lengthy and detailed conversations have been undertaken with the operators of more than 80 public bus routes to identify a range of different options dependant on the circumstances.  We have used the extra funding provided by Government to put on an extra 10 vehicles every day.

All operators run different size vehicles, different timetables, have different capacity availability and varying patronage usage all of which needed to be understood and to a large degree forecasted in unprecedented circumstances.  We have designed zoning on buses where there is a mix of fare paying adults and schoolchildren. Zoning differs from vehicle to vehicle so on some routes children will sit on the upper deck and on others they will be seated at the back of the bus.

We still have a large degree of uncertainty in our predictions.  We do not know how many parents will choose to take their child to school due to low confidence in public transport.  We do not know how many people will return to work as the furlough scheme winds down and will take up bus capacity.  We still have a number of families who have not fully completed the travel pass application process by uploading a photo, although we have sent them reminders.

Therefore, to be confident of securing a seat for every child entitled to funded travel, some closed contract services (school children only) have been extended to pick up children who would normally travel on a public route.  This has significantly reduced or removed our ability to offer spare seats on these buses. In other cases, it has proved impossible to get a clear enough picture of the numbers of people who will be using a public service so we are having to hold open potential spare seats on a closed contract so we can ensure that all the children entitled to funded travel can get to school and for us to meet our statutory obligations. 

Due to all this uncertainty and our statutory obligations to entitled students, we are unable to see how we can offer spare seats now. The Passenger Transport Team need to monitor the take up at the start of term before being able to offer spare seats. I appreciate how very frustrating this will be for parents. However, we must not offer a spare seat now and then have to withdraw it within days of term starting because the bus is full of children entitled to funded travel.

Parents will be able to apply for spare seats from October half term subject to availability. While spare seats are never guaranteed I recognise that these are important transport options for some families. If a parent has no means whatsoever of getting their child to school, SCC may be able to help by using discretionary power to offer transport arrangements. This would only be done where it is clear that this is absolutely essential to enable a child to attend school. If you know of anyone in that situation please advise them to contact transport.review@suffolk.gov.uk

Information on our Suffolk on Board website has been updated with Government guidance links, updated FAQs and a useful guide for parent/carers and pupils regarding school travel, which can be found on the following link for your reference www.suffolkonboard.com/schooltravel The parent/carer guide can be found under the FAQs but we have created a short URL also as follows:- www.suffolkonboard.com/covidguide