Shortage of 6,000 public buses puts UK’s school return at risk

Ministers have privately warned of a shortage of 6,000 public buses needed to get children to school in England next week for the autumn term and have urged coach companies to fill the gap.

James Tapper

Low passenger numbers during the pandemic have led some bus companies, particularly in rural areas, to reduce services, while social distancing requirements on public transport mean that there will be lower capacity on such services.

Fears that many of the 750,000 children who travel to school by public buses will not be able to make it to classrooms were raised at a meeting chaired by Charlotte Vere, the transport minister.

Candice Mason, of Masons coaches in Tring, Hertfordshire, took part in the meeting last month between the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT), which represents operators, and Vere. “She opened the meeting very clearly stating her focus was on home-to-school transport,” Mason said. “Her role was to try and get as many children as possible on to dedicated home-to-school services and she believed there was a shortfall of about 6,000 vehicles.”

There are enough coaches in the UK to deal with demand, according to the CPT, but nobody knows where shortages might hit.

The start of the new school year in September is still mired in uncertainty. Several recent surveys indicate that the majority of parents intend to send their children back to school at the start of term but that a minority remain unsure as to what they will do. The rise of infection rates in the UK also suggests that schools may be disrupted by local lockdowns.

Councils are putting on extra children-only public buses, but admit that might not be enough and are adopting a wait-and-see approach.

Even if there is an interim solution at the start of term, by half-term there may be more severe transport shortages. Public transport bus companies have received extra funding from the government during the pandemic but coach firms have not, and face huge financial losses. The CPT believes that by November, 18,000 of the 42,000 people in the coach industry will be out of jobs and nearly 16,000 coaches will be off the roads – about half the UK’s total fleet.

Since the meeting between coach companies and Vere, the Department for Education has issued guidance to local authorities, alongside £40m of funding, saying that “at least 50% of [bus] journeys to school of two miles or less” need to be done on foot or bicycle to “make capacity available for those with longer journeys”.

Keith Glazier, the leader of East Sussex county council and spokesman on children and young people for the County Councils Network, said he was “pleased the government has listened to our concerns and issued guidance which offers the flexibility counties need” but that councils were struggling with uncertainty over numbers.

“How will parents react? Will public transport be available? And, if it is available, will they allow their children to use it?,” he said. “And what will be the capacity should everyone need it? In a small county like East Sussex, I’m just not sure we have the capacity, with all the coaches and private buses that are available, to do that.”

Bath and North East Somerset council warned parents last week that “due to capacity limitations” students using public transport “may not have their first choice”.

Kent has an extensive grammar school system which means many pupils travel longer distances to school. There are signs that many will avoid public transport. The county council runs a “Travel Saver” ticket scheme, but has had only 6,100 applications, compared with 24,000 last year. Kent expects many parents will drive their children to school.

Rob Williams, a former headteacher and now senior policy advisor at the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “It’s important that the government gives flexibility to help local authorities, schools and parents to find local solutions.

“With so much uncertainty, particularly around what happens if there is a second spike, we need to have solutions to problems like how to get children home if they get taken ill with covid-like symptoms and their parents don’t have a car.”

Pat Harris, of Busk, which campaigns for safety in coaches and buses, said there was a risk that councils would use double decker buses to transport children long distances. “We have serious concerns about safety if that happens,” she said.

A government spokesperson said: “Making sure all children are back in the classroom full-time in September is a national priority as this is the best place for their education, development and wellbeing.

“While we have confidence that the public transport network is safe and has enough capacity to accommodate pupils returning to school, we are also providing more than £40 million to help local transport authorities create extra capacity.”