The Costs and Challenges of Changing the Specifications for School Transport in Scotland
Scottish pupils living over a maximum walking distance threshold are entitled to free or supported travel from their local education authority. In 2012/13 this is estimated to apply to 120,000 pupils, at a cost of £126 million per annum. During home to school journeys pupils are under the charge of the authority. This places a significant onus on Central Government, from a policy perspective, and Local Government, from a delivery perspective, to ensure pupils' safety and welfare.
This study established a baseline picture of the home to school transport industry in Scotland, and, using this is a pivot for forecasts, developed a modelling tool to estimate the demand and costs associated with future provision. In particular, this enabled the impact of a number of potential policy interventions to be assessed, including stipulations on seatbelts, CCTV, vehicle emissions, Wi-Fi, provision of warning signs and hazard lights, driver training and qualifications, and monitors on board services. To support this functionality, the model is also sensitive to key background trends, including demographics, home to school mode shares, and bus industry costs.
Statutory school transport is provided in a variety of forms by a host of different operators and suppliers. It is estimated that in total, on an average day, there are approximately 8,000 vehicles involved in transporting eligible pupils to schools, which includes 800 to 1,000 general service buses, 2,550 each of taxis/private hire vehicles and ASN vehicles, and 250 'other' vehicles. Whilst the major public transport groups provide a significant proportion of home to school travel using conventional buses, there are a host of small to medium enterprises involved in provision, estimated at between 200 and 250 suppliers.
The average age of the school transport fleet varies substantially, with double decker coaches and vehicles the oldest at an average of 10 to 14 years, and minibuses the youngest at 4 to 7 years. In part, this reflects the fact that double decker vehicles tend to be ex-general service, whereas minibuses are purchased for the explicit purpose of providing school transport, often with the need to comply with legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).
A number of local authorities include additional stipulations with operators. These vary between local authorities, and between contracts within a local authority, and already include:
- specific vehicles must be used, e.g. single deck, potentially with add‑ons such as seatbelts;
- vehicles can be drawn from the general fleet, but must have seatbelts;
- wheelchair accessible vehicles to be provided where necessary;
- monitors to be provided on double deck vehicles;
- CCTV on vehicles carrying more than 16 pupils; and
- minimum, and in a much smaller number of cases maximum, number of seats.
All else being equal, some of these stipulations are expected to have resulted in an increase in contract costs, although much of the effect is dissipated over time as operators wishing to tender for a contract are aware of the likely stipulations. Costs per pupil per day vary significantly between regions, and are a reflection of the stipulations and the market. Particularly strong factors are the levels of competition and whether contracts are awarded solely on price. Pressures on local authority budgets mean that the occurrence of the latter has increased, potentially penalising operators who invest in a higher quality fleet and resulting in pupils being transported on older vehicles.
Contract lengths have a strong level of interaction with levels of competition. Authorities have taken different approaches, with shorter contracts of 3 to 4 years favoured where competition is healthy. Some authorities also 'package' tendered services, including both different dedicated school routes and multiple tendered services in a given area, most commonly in Strathclyde and the South West.
Future changes in policy
It is clear from the data collection, consultation exercise, and the developed forecasting model, that future industry costs could vary markedly depending how any potential changes in policy are implemented. If there is only a short timeframe from the legislation to the date of implementation then contracts may have to be broken and it is likely that a greater proportion of the cost would be passed through to authorities. Similarly, where levels of competition for contracts are less, we also expect a more significant increase in costs, and there is a risk that some stipulations could drive operators out of the market. Finally, the coverage of the change will be an important determinant in future costs. Stipulating the change for selected schools, types of service and/or regions, reduces the cost to Government.