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Monday, 31 August 2020 19:26

Coronavirus and School Transport in Kent and Medway: Part Three

 Update: It has been suggested that the fall in take-up for the Kent Travel Pass is partly due to some families deciding not to send their children back to school at this time. It will soon become clear if this is a factor.  

Following on from the TUI holiday flight incident and the failure of passengers to follow rules, it is relevant to note the following

 Government statement: 'We do not expect drivers to police pupil behaviour. Their role is to focus on driving the vehicle safely' whilst KCC considers that 'Children travelling on these services will be required to wear face coverings for those over 11 and without an exemption'.

But from Stagecoach, one of the largest school contractors in Kent:  ‘Our drivers will not refuse travel or apply any enforcement measures, but we appeal to students and parents to ensure that this is taken seriously and that a face-covering is worn at all times when on the bus’.

It is not surprising that, partly as a result of this and partly through matters relating to social distancing, parental caution has seen the number of applications for the Kent travel passes fall by over half for September. Those for age 11-16 are down from around 24,000 normally to just 12,557 for September, with 16+ passes down from around 7,000 to 2,280. Most of the missing families will now be driving their children to school by car, swelling the road traffic considerably across the county at the two peak school times.

There is likely as a consequence to be travel chaos at peak periods particularly in areas where there are several secondary schools close together. Three towns spring to mind: Canterbury, Sittingbourne and Tunbridge Wells, but I am sure there are others. One can also add in schools served by narrow roads as explained in a previous article entitled The Coronavirus Effect on the 'School Run' in Kent, Part 2 which I wrote two weeks ago, and looks at the developing problems of getting children to school.  

I also look below at transport matters contained in new advice published by the government on Friday around 5.30 p.m. This sets fresh expectations for schools from the start of the new term, for many just five days in advance, including a weekend and a bank holiday. It contains 18 pages of advice, some wise and helpful, some very belated, some trivial and some patronising.  Finally, a look at Brockhill Park and Ebbsfleet Green Primary Schools. 

The transport problems in Kent are especially severe, with only three-quarters of the national average of secondary aged children travelling actively to school at less than 30%, mainly by walking or cycling. This reliance on transport arises because Kent’s 32 grammar schools and eight church comprehensives often recruit from wide geographical areas and, together with large rural hinterlands for many schools sharply reduce opportunities for active travelling. Medway, being primarily an urban authority will have far fewer challenges, except on the very rural Hoo Peninsula.

KCC has arranged an additional 80 buses to support school routes to compensate for social distancing rules. This is accompanied by seeing many routes being re-scheduled to become ‘dedicated school transport’, meaning that social distancing regulations could be relaxed, replaced by year group  ‘bubbles’, but see below

The website for Stagecoach, one of the largest schools operator in the county, serving the South and East of the county, is especially clear. It details the 48 dedicated schools services it is planning to run, which will replace the parallel public service routes (although these services were primarily for school children anyway) and new conditions of service. Also ‘A regular service double-decker bus can only carry up to 32 people. Some of our regular bus journeys will be shadowed by another bus running behind’. Arriva are doing the same for 50 services across the remainder of the county and in Medway. Another dozen or so contractors will each have their own arrangements.

New Government Guidance for Full Opening: Schools 
Yet another of the multitude of government advice documents showering schools with guidance was published three days ago, just in time for the new school term starting later this week. This one, 18 pages long, relates to Full School Opening. Two sections on transport and behaviour are especially relevant to the subject of this article, although much of the remainder make other multiple new demands on schools already weighed down with regulations and advice which have arrived on a frequent basis through the summer 'holiday' for headteachers.  
The first looks at transport issues and contains new 'advice' completely unfeasible at five days notice!  Arrangements for children travelling on dedicated services, now include: 'From the autumn term, local authorities will not be required to uniformly apply the social distancing guidelines for public transport, on dedicated school or college transport. However, distancing should still be put in place within vehicles wherever possible'. Is the government not aware that a high proportion of dedicated services have been reclassified precisely in order to avoid social distancing? These include the 98 dedicated services being run by Stagecoach and Arriva, which are mostly planned to carry a near full capacity? There is no chance of these being rescheduled especially as, for example, Stagecoach now has every one of its buses on the roads at the critical times. Obviously, where such dedicated services are running to multiple schools, this becomes complete nonsense, as indeed did the bubble concept for year groups from individual schools (on some buses this amounts to at least 20 different bubbles, all nonsupervised). Whereas up until now, children on dedicated services have not needed to wear face coverings,  'In accordance with advice from PHE, from the autumn term, we recommend that local authorities advise children and young people aged 11 and over to wear a face-covering when travelling on dedicated transport'. Again, there is no means of regulating this, which may well lead to behavioural problems.
Secondly, 'It is likely that adverse experiences or lack of routines of regular attendance and classroom discipline may contribute to disengagement with education upon return to school, resulting in increased incidence of poor behaviour'. Too true, but the advice that follows is mainly trite and all heads will surely be aware of the additional issues this raises. What there is not, is any reference to behaviour on school transport, which is likely to be completely unregulated, given the instruction given to drivers!
Face Coverings in Schools: Brockhill Park School
There is still considerable confusion here with the government document considering a variety of situations, but concluding: 'based on current evidence and the measures that schools are already putting in place, such as the system of controls and consistent bubbles, face coverings will not be necessary in the classroom even where social distancing is not possible. Face coverings would have a negative impact on teaching and their use in the classroom should be avoided' However, final decisions are left to headteachers with for example Brockhill Park School, which has a reputation for taking robust actions (not necessarily a criticism) setting out its arrangements for September. Contrary to the government advice above: 'We will require our students and staff to wear a face covering in school. Social distancing is simply not possible in classrooms of 30 or 32 students and now recognizes face coverings provide a measure of protection both to the wearer and those around them. They will not be alone. Further: 'In any event, we will not allow a student to board a bus in the evening if they are not wearing a face covering. We will simply telephone their parent and ask that they arrange collection of their child from the school site'. 
Ebbsfleet Green Primary School
I feel particularly sorry for the 90 or so infants joining the new Ebbsfleet Green Primary School. Unfortunately, their new premises are not completed because of coronavirus complications so, for the time being, they need to travel seven miles to Bligh Primary School in Strood, by coach provided by KCC, or by car swelling the traffic even further.  
Last modified on Wednesday, 02 September 2020 07:38


  • Comment Link Thursday, 03 September 2020 16:09 posted by Jane, Sevenoaks

    As a one-car family with work commitments in the opposite direction to my son's grammar school (10 miles away), even an early start to drop him off won't work. The school does not open before 8am and if I wait with him, I will then face heavy traffic on the A26 and later on heading to South London in the worst of the traffic. There is no chance of working and being able to pick him up.

    Our son will therefore be catching the school bus from Seal, near Sevenoaks.

    We delayed buying this year's Travel Saver pass because KCC's website advises that there will be no refunds if there are disruptions to in-school teaching this coming year. I waited to see if the outlook was any clearer before purchasing the pass but in the end felt we had no choice - daily tickets are too expensive and the Council has not offered to subsidise any type of pass or ticket starting September other than the pass for a full year's travel. (Their website says they may offer a shorter-length pass, perhaps from January, but that doesn't help us now.)

  • Comment Link Monday, 31 August 2020 23:32 posted by Kent secondary headteacher

    My own view is that transport is the killer for our school. We believe we are on top of the other issues, challenging as they are. Too many parents simply cannot get their children to school through lack of transport, work commitments, or fear of the road chaos you correctly forecast.

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