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Monday, 17 August 2020 23:43

The Coronavirus Effect on the 'School Run' in Kent, Part 2

Update 20th August: KCC has released a guide called: Returning to school using transport which summarises much that I have written below. Good news is that the Council:  have also been given funding to provide extra buses where we are worried about social distancing space. From the start of the new academic year, we expect over 80 extra buses to be running with fewer children on board. Therefore we are confident that there will be enough space. If there are any problems, then we will work to fix them by providing alternative transport (not quite the assurance given below)The Council will also be changing the classification of some services from public use to dedicated school transport (see below). 
This article builds on one I published on the same theme last week and follows the subsequent publication of yet another government policy document, as the government attempts to head off the coming crisis in school transport. It is becoming ever clearer that Kent is at the sharp end of this with its many rural, faith and grammar schools requiring an unusually large network of school transport. Parents, please note this article does not contain advice on what to do if you have problems with securing appropriate school transport - I am sorry but I am not able to provide any at present because of the lack of hard information. However, I would welcome any examples of potential problems. 

The A-Level and GCSE exams fiascos are already highlighting considerable incompetence at the Department for Education. The same department is exacerbating the transport issues by having too many vague, unrealistic and unexamined ideas being pumped out at short notice for others to implement, in an attempt to head off the crisis. This latest government document shows that the load and responsibility on school leaders to deliver all they are required to do is out of all proportion to the resources they have available, although I am sure they will give it their best shot. The large majority of parents whose children need to travel on school transport will be dismayed to see the inevitable gap between government pipe dreams and practice. My previous article referred to the knock-on traffic problems of a large increase in car journeys as families switch away from public transport, but the proposal for  ‘implementing ‘safe streets’ policies outside schools’, whilst welcome to many,  is surely fraught with difficulties if introduced in time for the start of term. 

At the other end of the scale: ‘At a national level, at least 50% of journeys to school of 2 miles or less, and which are currently undertaken by public bus, need to switch to cycling and walking in order to make capacity available for those with longer journeys’, which arrives from the ivory tower without any clues as to how the obligation is to be achieved. 

The new publication is Guidance: Transport to School and Other Places of Education: Autumn Term 2020 (published on11th August) offering the further advice promised in previous documents. It is reinforced by Travel Demand Management (TDM) policy toolkit (30th July), previously sent to Local Authorities, although I don’t have a copy of the latter and have seen no signs of its implementation.  

Alternatives to School Transport
We are told that Local Authorities have been working with schools and colleges since the beginning of July ‘to survey parents, carers and students to collect information about travel. This could include data on how students in their areas travelled to school or college before coronavirus (COVID-19); whether they intend to change their mode of travel; and, if not, what measures could persuade them to do so’. Apart from the difficulties in collecting this whilst students are not in school, it would have been helpful to suggest what some of these persuasive measures might be. Switch to travel by car, creating a different kind of problem? Installing new cycle racks in some cases where they have been removed? Headteachers I have spoken to are not aware of having received this survey from KCC. 

Strategies for bringing about the increase in cycling and walking (the previous suggestion of using scooters appears to have gone!)  include: 'building on existing schemes (such as the Walk to School programme and Bikeability training); encouraging schools and colleges to communicate directly with the pupils whose journeys are most appropriate to switch to active travel to encourage them to do so; and implementing ‘safe streets’ policies outside schools’. The first applies primarily to primary schools and so is of limited relevance. The second will be difficult to do in the holidays. Safe streets policies include closing down roads near schools to enable safe access and introducing cycle lanes on existing roads. Whilst these and other policies may be laudable some would require months of consultation and seeking approval, so not really relevant to the Autumn term! 

Schools are also advised to engage extensively with local businesses and employers to reduce other demand for public transport during peak school travel hours. I am fairly sure I know how local businesses and employers weighed down with the other challenges of coronavirus will respond, let alone where school leaders, many working round the clock dealing with the exams disaster,  will place this as a priority.  

Back in February, the government announced £5 billion in funding for new funding to overhaul bus and cycle links. Part of this was to be the £2 billion package to create a new era for cycling and walking announced in May. Earlier this month we learnt that local transport authorities will receive more than £40 million funding delivering on the national priority for all children and young people to return to full-time education in September to create extra capacity and allow hundreds of thousands more students to use alternatives to public transport. September is nearly on us, but no signs yet of how it is to be delivered. 
The county has specific problems with its wide range of schools including the rural nature of many, with others drawing from a large rural hinterland. There are also 32 grammar schools and eight oversubscribed church comprehensive schools many drawing from a wide geographical base. I have been able to find the following data which underlies the issue and, although some of it is dated, it is still relevant. National data from 2014 shows 29% of Kent secondary school children actively travelling to school, including walking, cycling, park & walk, and scoot/skate (28.4% in 2016), compared with 41% nationally. By 2019, the national figure had fallen to 37% (34% walking 3% cycling), the lowest percentage on record, so Kent has likely followed suit in this downward trend.  Urban Medway is unsurprisingly above national averages. However, most of the further requirements (some outlined below) for KCC and schools to implement in increasing this proportion are surely completely unrealistic, and indeed Kent’s latest Strategy document for increasing active travel offers little. 
Kent County Council Press Release 10th August 2020
The Press release is headed: 'Arrangements Being Made for School Transport' and is a very positive statement, in contradiction of the concerns I have expressed elsewhere in this article.  KCC promises that 'You can be assured that there will be capacity on our hired transport and local buses to take your child to school safely. Behind the scenes we have been working with bus operators to ensure that our services are provided in accordance with the guidance, ensuring there will be enough room whether you take a taxi, bus or coach to school. If we need to hire more vehicles to keep people safe, we will do so'. It also confirms that KCC is going to work with some operators to convert some public services to become dedicated buses carrying pupils only. 'Children travelling on these services will be required to wear face coverings for those over 11 and without an exemption'. There is to be no standing, although the rules for social distancing are glossed over. My reading of the release is that it is primarily referring to dedicated buses, in spite of the fleeting references to 'local buses'  over which KCC has little control and which comprise the large majority of services for school children in the county. However, KCC still appears in the dark about government's detailed plans: ''We know parents need certainty on transport arrangements for schools returning in September and as soon as government gives us that detailed guidance, we will advise on how it will work'. It may be that this is Guidance: Transport to School and Other Places of Education: Autumn Term 2020, published the next day but, as I have demonstrated it offers little of practical value, especially with regard to the majority public service routes. However, we wait for KCC's further advice on how the guidance will work in practice.   
The Secretary of State for Education
Gavin Williamson states: 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. For those that have no other option than public transport, this investment for local authorities will mean more students will be able to travel on dedicated home to school and college transport, creating even more capacity where it is needed most. It really is difficult to know what to say to this collection of doublespeak but I will try: (a) I am afraid this message has not reached the overwhelming number of students, but perhaps schools have urged their staff to plan their method of transport; (b) the transport service has certainly not almost returned to full service, because social distancing has dramatically reduced capacity; (c) I am sure thousands of people will be forced to find alternative modes of transport where they exist, arriving 'on time' remains a massive issue; (d) declaring general-purpose buses to be dedicated school services certainly restores some capacity on the routes where this is happening, but brings its own 'bubbling' issues.
How Local Authorities can manage capacity and demand
In the first part of the new document, the main strategies listed are (abbreviated), to: 'Strongly promote active travel; Accept increased use of cars for longer journeys; Engage extensively with local businesses and employers to reduce other demand for public transport during peak school travel hours; Stagger school and college start and finish times to reduce pressure on transport services; contract additional coaches or other appropriate vehicles (where they are available at a local level and necessary) to provide dedicated school transport services; identify existing bus services used exclusively or predominantly by school children and designate them as school only services. If there is still a need for additional transport capacity after all of the above measures have been considered, then local authorities should procure suitable vehicles'. One possible source of additional vehicles in Kent will be the many commuter coaches into London which are currently unused.
Dedicated School Transport 
The second part of the document contains a large range of conditions for operating dedicated school transport, alongside a recommendation that 'pupils over the age of 11 should wear a face-covering when travelling, from the start of the autumn term'. There needs to be an arrangement to dispose of these appropriately after the journey' and to wash hands yet again. The face-covering requirement is underlined in the KCC Press Release. 

The two key elements highlighted are: 'social distancing should be maximised within vehicles wherever it is possible, between individuals or ‘'bubbles'’; and 'it is very important to maximise the ventilation of fresh air (from outside the vehicle) particularly through opening windows and ceiling vents'.

Others include (see document for detail): 'Minimise contact with individuals who are unwell; Clean hands before boarding transport and again on disembarking; Introduce enhanced cleaning of surfaces; Minimise contact and mixing' – this last includes an enormous group of conditions covering bubbles from different year groups and schools on the same bus, planning seating arrangements; queuing arrangements for picking up and dropping off children and young people to ensure distancing; providing clear information for families, young people and children about the arrangements; SEND issues; staggered starts to the school day.

There is also the suggestion, recognising there is going to be traffic congestion, that buses stop a short way from the school to ease this.

Finally: 'We do not expect drivers to police pupil behaviour. Their role is to focus on driving the vehicle safely'. This underlines the enormous reliance on pupil self-discipline on all buses.

Last modified on Saturday, 22 August 2020 20:26

1 comment

  • Comment Link Monday, 31 August 2020 15:11 posted by Richard Stephens

    Peter, do you have an update on school transport. PETER: Its on its way showing a sharp fall in bus take up, and the inevitable corresponding increase in cars on the road. There is going to be chaos!

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