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Friday, 07 August 2020 19:47

Kent and Medway 'School Run' Coronavirus Crisis

Further article here following new Advice from the Government

Updated again 14th August, looking at the provision of bus services for 'The School Run' - and probably more to come in a fast-changing situation.

 
Government Policy
'It is our plan that all pupils, in all year groups, will return to school full-time from the beginning of the autumn term'.

Government Advice
'We expect that public transport capacity will continue to be constrained in the autumn term. Its use by pupils, particularly in peak times, should be kept to an absolute minimum'. 
' I am asking every staff member and student to plan now how they will get to school or college. If it is possible to walk or cycle, please do' (Secretary of State for Education)

I wholeheartedly support the government policy principle of encouraging all pupils to return to school in September, and those schools are working incredibly hard to deliver it. However, one of the many intractable Covid-19 related challenges facing some secondary schools and families when re-opening in September is that of pupil transport. Many Kent schools are especially vulnerable, for the county is rural in places with pupils having to travel long distances to their nearest school, and faith and grammar schools will also have pupils who travel considerable distance by public transport. Most readers will have seen or encountered the publicly accessible double-decker buses packed with pupils on their way to and from school in the past, but this won’t be the situation in September. For social distancing rules reduce the number of passengers on each bus by up to two thirds and there are not the spare buses at peak school times to compensate by increasing numbers.

We are now just three weeks away from the start of term and there is no sign of a solution to the potential transport chaos from too few buses and too many cars on the road at peak times. The government has recently released two documents covering the challenges, but with few solutions apart from £40 million in new (?) money mainly to enable students to use unidentified alternatives to public transport (answers on a postcard please!), and keeping fit by cycling, walking or using a scooter. KCC considers that: ‘the financial impact on bus services and operators has been significant so it could be that more services than usual are subject to change or cancellation. In addition, at the moment, operators are only able to let about half of the usual numbers of passengers on their buses and if this remains the case, then providing enough space for all passengers could (!) be a problem, and so students that can travel in a different way should do so at the moment’. This will inevitably have major knock-on effects, with a sharp increase in private traffic on the roads at key times. I have looked at several possible flashpoints below.

There is no doubt that unless there are considerable improvements to what is currently on offer, too many pupils will regularly miss large parts of the school day, with some not being able to make school at all.  It is difficult to see what they can do in the face of government threats to fine families whose children do not attend. However, they will not be alone as others will be in quarantine, or come from families simply frightened of the consequences of children mixing with others during the pandemic, which can of course peak again by then perhaps in local clusters. 

The government has belatedly produced two recent policy documents relating to school transport. It updated its extensive policy document detailing Guidance for Full Opening: Schools last Friday (August 7th), which has a section on school transport. A press release outlining a Multi-million-pound funding package for school transport (August 8th),  from Departments of both Transport and Education, claims that local transport authorities will receive more than £40 million for the autumn term on Saturday, as the urgency of the crisis comes home. Although this contains some fine flourishes, there is little detail (new detailed guidance to arrive in the following week!), and it is neither clear how much is new money, nor where it will be applied: 'this funding will help them create extra capacity and allow hundreds of thousands more students to use alternatives to public transport'.   

Most secondary schools will have worked out plans to manage a full pupil attendance if there are no further spikes in Covid-19, taking into account staggered starts and finishes to the school day, setting up year group bubbles, year group zones, staggered lunches and break times, year group entrances and exits, crowded corridor behaviour and one way systems, cancelling assemblies and other large gatherings, strategies to deal with children or staff exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, PPE policy, cleaning, more cleaning, deep cleaning, etc, etc. All this on the twin assumptions that all pupils will turn up and there will be no spike in Kent cases. But for too many children, current transport arrangements will see them arriving at school very late on a regular basis and for some not at all. Parents have been threatened that if they don't send their children to school they will be fined.

The School Run
Amongst the wide range of imperatives for schools to follow in Guidance for Full Opening: Schools is a  section on School Transport.  This defines two types of buses used on the school run as:
 
1) Dedicated Transport
The major part of the item relates to 'dedicated transport' - services that are used only to carry pupils to school. This includes statutory home to school transport, but may also include some existing or new commercial travel routes, where they carry school pupils only. In other words, such buses do not carry members of the general public, but at present are only a minor part of provision in Kent. 
 
Transport organisations are still waiting for new guidance to be published 'shortly', but the current recommendation explicitly allows bus operators to dispense with social distancing for dedicated transport services, but explaining that  

It is important to consider:

  • how pupils are grouped together on transport, where possible this should reflect the bubbles that are adopted within school
  • use of hand sanitiser upon boarding and/or disembarking
  • additional cleaning of vehicles
  • organised queuing and boarding where possible
  • distancing within vehicles wherever possible
  • the use of face coverings for children (except those under the age of 11), where appropriate, for example, if they are likely to come into very close contact with people outside of their group or who they do not normally meet

This allows operators to be flexible with the recommendations, especially where dedicated buses are serving more than one schools, bearing in mind that the approach 'should align as far as possible with the principles underpinning the system of controls set out in this document', but apparently without obligation. 

Medway Council runs nine dedicated school bus services, see below.  Several of these services travel to multiple schools so having year group bubbles for each school will itself prove complex, if indeed it is workable. The government press release suggests that the funding will be forthcoming for some new dedicated services to be introduced in less than four weeks from today, which will either require even more buses or else restrict other services to take school pupils only. 

2) Wider Public Transport 
In the 'wider public transport - routes which are also used by the general public' section,  schools will no doubt interested to learn that: 'To facilitate the return of all pupils to school, it will be necessary to take steps to both depress the demand for public transport and to increase capacity within the system. Both will require action at a national and local level. Schools have a critical role to play in supporting collaboration between all parties - providers, local authorities, parents and pupils'. This is accompanied by a number of generalisations, characteristic of both government statements.
It is clear from the Press Release that somehow additional funding of £40 million will allow hundreds of thousands more students to use alternatives to public transport, while social distancing measures remain in place, as distinct from just thousands who will benefit from more dedicated transport. There are no clues as to what these alternatives to public transport are, at present apparently not allowed.
 
School Run Bus Services Across Kent and Medway
I was interviewed recently on Radio Kent about school transport issues for September, along with the owner of Go-Coaches, the third-largest bus operator in Kent. Go-Coaches has recently converted its twenty nine school services from 'wider public' to become dedicated services for school pupils only, which removes the requirement to socially distance. As a result, members of the general public who may have previously been allowed on these buses can no longer use them, if indeed there were any.  These services operate from across West Kent and the Dartford area to schools in Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells. Thirteen services run to  Knole Academy, Trinity School and the Weald of Kent Grammar Annexe. all in Sevenoaks from various directions. Eight more run to Bennett Memorial School in Tunbridge Wells. The company transports some 2,000 pupils each day and has now cut out bus stops to eliminate journeys of less than two miles (see below). Go-Coaches also runs service 429 from West Kingsdown to Dartford, including stops at the Wilmington and Dartford grammar schools, and the Leigh Academy. It will now comprise a dedicated double-decker, and a wider transport single-decker coach able to carry adults.  

I have carried out a survey of the fourteen companies based in Kent that run services directly to schools. The large majority of these appear to be open to the public, but the status of some is not obvious. There are also three companies in Medway, running 23 services, listed here.  However, with few members of the public likely to immerse themselves in a bus full of school pupils, it would appear quite straightforward to convert several of these to dedicated services, as with Go-Coaches. Two companies already operating dedicated bookable coach services are: Scotland and Bates to Highworth, Homewood, and Norton Knatchbull schools in the Ashford area, and North Kent School Transport, running four coaches from Bexley and Bromley to the Dartford and Wilmington Grammar Schools.  I counted eleven services running to the rural Homewood School.   Lewis Coaches runs two services from Woolwich and Thamesmead to Chatham, Holcombe and Rochester grammar schools in Medway.  There are also private coaches from places such as Thurrock, Tilbury and Grays in Essex to the four Dartford grammar schools, some parentally organised. A group of mainly Thurrock children from Essex use the Tilbury Ferry on their way to Gravesend Grammar School. 

As a data geek, I became quite absorbed in the pattern of school bus provision which underlined many of the pressure points in Kent school places around the county. The high number of services to Dartford from London Boroughs and Essex underlines how the two Dartford grammar schools have ceased to focus on local children, although the two Wilmington grammars scaling back their out of county numbers will see a reduction in future years. Tunbridge Wells has a host of services running to its six schools, four of which attract a large number of pupils from outside the locality. I was initially surprised by the number of buses travelling from Thanet to Sandwich Technology College, including one from as far away as Birchington, reflecting the polarisation of popularity among local non-selective schools. There is a flock of buses taking children off the Isle of Sheppey into the five Sittingbourne schools, three close together, and a small flurry heading in the opposite direction, for children who have failed to get into these heavily oversubscribed schools. I look at these in more detail below

 Knock-on Effects
Unsurprisingly, many parents appear to be planning to take their children to school in September by car as an alternative way forward, as now encouraged by government which is aware of the oncoming crisis. This will not only create a general surge in road traffic across the county at the two peak times, but the particular bottlenecks near to some schools will be immense.  I already have reports of school pupils regularly turning up late to schools running at half capacity in the summer term because of a shortage of bus places but, the situation in Tunbridge Wells and some other hotspots below, below, looks dire. 
 
In a previous version of Guidance for Full Opening: Schools, the government urged Local Authorities to 'promote active travel strongly. In particular, for journeys to school of two miles or less (and which are currently undertaken by public bus) I would ask that you aim to shift as many of these as possible to cycling and walking, with a target of at least 50% of such journeys being made in this way. I realise this is highly ambitious, but I cannot overstate the importance of reducing the demand on public transport', but this appears to have vanished in the most recent version. 
 
As more parents return to work, this situation may ease, although in some cases at the cost of children not being able to get to school at all! There will also be many children who have no alternative to getting to school by bus. I hear that some groups of parents are considering organising private coaches to transport children to school, a model which used to be in place for a number of children in the rural areas south of the Dartford and Gravesend grammar schools, and I understand still is for children from London Boroughs to Medway schools. 
 
Case Studies
(1)St John’s Road, Tunbridge Wells. This one road provides the main access for three grammar schools, two of which have a high proportion of pupils from outside the town, together with two large church comprehensive schools, both of which also attract large numbers from outside TW.  The road is already notorious as a traffic black spot at the key periods of school opening and closing. Theoretically, there will need to be additional buses if they were available at this peak time, but demand will fall as many families switch to cars, adding greatly to the road pressure.
(2) Central Sittingbourne. Borden, Fulston Manor and Highsted, along with Westlands the second largest secondary in Kent.  The first three schools are close together and heavy congestion is currently reported. Hundreds of pupils from the Isle of Sheppey arrive by bus converging on some narrow roads, whilst many others travel to the Sittingbourne School further away.
(3)Huntsman Lane/Vinters Road Maidstone. These are two narrow roads connecting at right angles, with three secondary schools at the corner creating a different situation. Between them, Valley Park Schol and Invicta Grammar hold over 3,000 pupils, with the new Maidstone School of Science and Technology opening in September with an initial intake of 180. Planning permission for this school was highly controversial for several years because of traffic pressures on the two roads but was eventually granted. Clearly there is going to be even greater pressure on this corner in September, with the new school and a likely increase in parents bring children to school by car instead of by bus.
(4) Thanet.  Because of the problematic nature of two schools in Thanet, and the nature of the built-up area as a crescent around the coastline, buses and cars already converge at pinch points.  

As a minor example, I live in a narrow road near my local grammar school and regularly see traffic come to a complete standstill at school opening and closing times. Doubling numbers is unimaginable in terms of how this traffic will flow. This will be repeated multiple times across the county, although presumably thought is being given to minimise the chaos! Some children will have no reliable way to access their school.

I have not considered the alternative form of public transport, the train, and this may simplify matters for some pupils, as no doubt will the strong encouragement throughout both documents to walk, cycle or even travel by scooter to school. 'I am asking every staff member and student to plan now how they will get to school or college. If it is possible to walk or cycle, please do. While our public transport system has almost returned to full service, I know thousands of people will choose to get active and find alternative modes of transport, because with distancing measures still in place it is important that we all play our part to ensure everyone is able to get to school safely, and on time' (Gavin Williamson).  

 Free School Transport
Several categories of children are entitled to free school transport to schools as detailed here, including an explanation of how to appeal if an application for free transport is unsuccessful.  However, apart from some children who have dedicated transport provided to go to Special Schools or SEN Units, most also have to make their way to school via public transport if this is available. As a result, they will also have to meet the same challenges as others in order to get to school at this time. There is a Vacant Seats Scheme in Kent, offered if there are spaces on such dedicated transport, but this is unlikely to operate in the coming year. 
Payment for School Transport
Kent County Council is more generous with regard to school transport than many Councils through its Travel Saver (previously known as the Freedom Pass), although this has attracted considerable criticism as the cost has been forced up to £360 for the coming year, and its use has been severely restricted because of difficulties in Local Authority finance. However, it still remains a good deal compared to many other authorities, with Medway having nothing similar. Some pupils in Kent are also entitled to free school transport, as explained below, but this only helps if the buses are there. You will find a full explanation of the Kent schemes for supporting children's transport to school hereThe closing date for applying for the Travel Saver was on 9th August, although parents may be able to order one later on. However, no final decision has been made about this. I am afraid I have no advice on whether a Travel Saver is right for you or not in the current circumstances, for its value will depend on the nature of the bus service finally provided in September. Some of the dedicated services require tickets to be prepaid for a period of up to a term or a year, without taking advantage of the concessions for other services.
 
Medway Council
Medway Council is primarily an urban authority, except for the Hoo Peninsula which includes a number of smaller widespread communities. There is a scheme of free school transport for qualifying children, details here. The Council runs nine dedicated school bus services with commercial operators, an annual season ticket costing £315, details here. Places are booked in advance so that the Council and bus operators can work out how to manage demand, clearly a critical factor this year. The Council lays down that pupils should travel in year groups on these buses in September,  removing the need for general social distancing but this will still limit numbers and there is much scepticism as to whether it can be made to work.

Otherwise, the only general concession in Medway is the Youth Pass, which entitles young people to travel at half fare up to 9 a.m. on school days, a period when otherwise they would be charged for adult tickets. There is nothing like the more general Kent Travel Saver.   

Last modified on Monday, 24 August 2020 06:19

4 comments

  • Comment Link Friday, 14 August 2020 15:40 posted by Jerry Little

    In other words, its not going to work, universal secondary school opening is going to be chaos in September, with insufficient buses and too many cars. Peter, could you start a drive to get everyone to come to school by scooter? PETER: Well there's a thought. It will make the media hysteria over A Level results look like a bunfight!

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 11 August 2020 14:00 posted by Sorrel

    Sensible to not force the social distancing on buses. There are also people who come to Tunbridge Wells schools from Sevenoaks and Tonbridge by bus, but who have the option of train too. There's a walk from the station but the Orpington lot do it and it's fine.

  • Comment Link Monday, 10 August 2020 17:07 posted by Hazel J.

    We are one of the many Longfield/Hartley/New Ash Green families whose children take buses to the Gravesend grammar schools. Others go to the Dartford grammars. They appear to be public service buses but no one else uses them. If they are cut to one third of capacity there is no way most children will ever get to school. Any thoughts? PETER: This situation could be resolved under the government suggestion in 'School Transport' above to turn such services into dedicated ones, follow the link above. Contact the school and see if they are pursuing this.

  • Comment Link Monday, 10 August 2020 12:38 posted by James

    Thank you for this exellent round up Peter. Unfortunately it gives us no solutions for getting to St Gregory's from Sevenoaks next month.

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