The Costs and Challenges of Changing the Specifications for School Transport in Scotland


Background to Statutory School Transport Provision

3.1 Education authorities in Scotland are under a statutory requirement to provide home to school transport arrangements that they consider necessary for:

  • children aged less than 8 years old who live more than two miles from their designated school; and
  • children aged 8 and over who live more than three miles from their designated school.

3.2 These distances are measured by their nearest available route, and the entitlement covers both pupils residing within their area, and those from outside who attend schools in their area. Education authorities have a number of options for provision open to them, including:

  • dedicated, free, home to school transport for some or all of the journey;
  • making bicycles or other suitable means of transport available to pupils; and
  • paying some or all of their travel costs for travel on scheduled public transport or in taxis.

3.3 In the vast majority of cases, the former and the latter options dominate provision, with the percentage mix highly dependent on the density and coverage of scheduled public transport services. When travelling to/from school on transport arranged by education authorities, pupils are under the charge of the authority. As a result, there is a political imperative to ensure that high standards of safety and security are achieved. This led to the 2010 Transport Scotland publication 'A Guide to improving School Transport Safety'. This document included a range of potential stipulations for school transport contracts, including:

  • provision of larger and more conspicuous school bus signs, and their removal when not transporting pupils to/from school;
  • use of hazard warning lights when pupils are boarding and alighting vehicles;
  • the fitting of three-point seatbelts;
  • operators assisting authorities in ensuring all pupils wear the provided seatbelts;
  • CCTV fitted on all school buses;
  • minimums on level of bus driving experience, age requirement, driver training; and
  • introduction of penalty point systems for non-compliance by operators, and the option of contract termination for repeated non-compliance.

3.4 The demand for home to school transport does not stand in a silo, and is heavily influenced by demographic trends, wider education policy, and parental choices around residential location, car ownership, and school choice. In particular:

  • the number of pupils attending primary school is expected to grow much more rapidly than the number attending secondary schools in the near to medium term future, with the absolute number of secondary school pupils falling until 2017, and not recovering to 2012/13 levels until 2019/20;
  • changes in the number of pupils with Additional Support Needs (ASN), who may require more bespoke travel solutions;
  • changes in the number of schools, their location and size; and
  • changes in the demand for home to school transport from parents.

3.5 Similarly, the ability of operators, and more importantly, a range of operators to supply school transport services, is dependent upon a wider set of influences:

  • industry costs - particularly fuel, labour, insurance and the capital and revenue cost of any upgrades to vehicles;
  • access issues - are there suitable depots or locations from which contracts can be resourced;
  • wider Governmental policy in the bus industry - some operators and/or their services may only be viable as part of a wider network or package of services;
  • the length of school transport contracts - longer contracts provide stability, but can also prevent new entrants to the market and/or encourage existing operators to withdraw; and
  • stipulations on school transport contracts, and the lead-in time from these to when they have to be implemented.

Current Demand for Home to School Travel

3.6 As of academic year 2012/13, there were approximately:

  • 670,000 primary, secondary and ASN pupils in Scotland;
  • of these, 45% attend schools in the Strathclyde and South West region, and 28% in the South East region;
  • 8 to 9% attend schools in each of Tayside and Central Scotland, North East Scotland and the Highlands and Islands; and
  • 1,961 primary, 323 secondary, 111 ASN and 201 'Combined' schools across the country.

3.7 Of these pupils, approximately 120,000 were eligible for, and used, statutory school transport provision. Figure 3.1 shows the type of transport provided by education authorities for these pupils. The proportion of pupils making use of statutory transport varied markedly by region, area and school type - those living in less dense regions, in rural areas, and attending secondary schools typically had the highest proportions, whereas those pupils in urban areas, in denser regions, and attending primary schools had lower proportions.

Figure 3.1: Statutory School Pupils by Type of Provision

Figure 3.1: Statutory School Pupils by Type of Provision

3.8 Table 3.1 shows the estimated financial outlay by region on statutory school transport contracts.

Table 3.1: Estimated 2012/13 Statutory School Transport Expenditure by Region
Region 2012/13 statutory school transport expenditure (£Ms)
Highlands and Islands 18,800
North East 14,700
South East 38,000
Strathclyde and South West 41,300
Tayside and Central Scotland 13,200
TOTAL 126,000

Current Home to School Transport Provision

3.9 As illustrated in Figure 3.1, statutory school transport is provided in a variety of forms by a host of different operators and suppliers. A nationwide survey of authorities was undertaken in order to build up a baseline picture of the current fleet, and whether vehicles were fitted with various attributes which may be covered in future stipulations.

3.10 The survey data indicates a fleet of approximately 2,100 dedicated buses are involved in providing home to school transport each day in Scotland, exclusive of the use of general service buses, taxis, and ASN vehicles. 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.

3.11 Figure 3.2 shows the breakdown of vehicle types deployed on dedicated services. The average age of the vehicles varies substantially across the fleet; double deck buses and coaches tend to be the oldest at around 10 to 14 years, and minibuses the youngest at 4 to 7 years. This reflects the fact that double decker vehicles tend to be buses and coaches which are ex-general service or still used for other scheduled services at other times of the day. By contrast, mini-buses tend to be purchased for the explicit purpose of providing school transport and other similar services, and are reflective of the need to comply with legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).

3.12 As a whole, the average age of vehicles in the school transport fleet ranges between 6 and 9 years old across regions and area types (urban and rural). However, although the older buses tend to be in the more rural areas, they are more likely to have a number of attributes which could be stipulated on school transport contracts, including seatbelts, CCTV and hazard lights, primarily as the vehicles are less likely to be used as part of the general service fleet.

3.13 These vehicles are owned and operated by a plethora of school transport suppliers; across Scotland there are approximately 200 to 250 companies provided contracted services. This number includes different subsidiaries of the main public transport groups, but indicates a large presence from small to medium sized operators in the school transport market.

Figure 3.2: Dedicated Statutory School Transport Provision by Vehicle Type

Figure 3.2: Dedicated Statutory School Transport Provision by Vehicle Type

Current Industry Costs

3.14 Figure 3.3 shows real term changes in the key drivers of Scottish bus industry costs. Since the economic downturn of 2008/9 there has been a focus on keeping overhead and capital (including fleet renewal and enhancements amongst other items) costs down, partly as a result of significant increases in fuel costs. Real term labour costs have remained relatively static, but maintenance costs have risen sharply. The overall trend from 2007 to 2012 has been a 5% increase in day-to-day operational expenditure (excluding capital), mainly driven by fuel costs which continue approximately 15% of operating costs. Labour costs are the most significant component of operational expenditure at approximately 60%.

Figure 3.3: Indexed Trends in Scottish Bus Industry Costs (2007=100)

Figure 3.3: Indexed Trends in Scottish Bus Industry Costs (2007=100)

Other Challenges Facing the School Transport Industry

3.15 Any stipulations which may be introduced for statutory school transport services sit within a wider range of influences and factors which will also affect the type and cost of provision. These include:

  • complexities associated with stipulating both specification and length of contracts against ensuring that a competitive tending environment is maintained;
  • meeting the requirements of ASN pupils is particularly challenging and can be a constantly changing dynamic;
  • the importance of the relationship with education colleagues was highlighted in terms of managing issues relating to school transport particularly in terms of pupil behaviour;
  • current legislation may not include the potential withdrawal of statutory transport if a pupil does not comply with certain requirements, e.g. wearing of seatbelts, appropriate behaviour - authorities have received varying legal advice regarding this;
  • there are some challenges surrounding yellow buses and their use outwith school contracts, where the general public think they are school buses only. In addition the specific layout etc. of some yellow buses could prohibit more general use;
  • there could be an argument for issuing travel passes or using PSV services for school transport in favour of dedicated buses to engender greater use of public transport generally and later in life;
  • ensuring seatbelts, when provided, are worn is a contentious and difficult issue for operators and authorities; and
  • pupil behaviour on-board services remains an issue, but there is an emerging consensus on what initiatives are effective in tackling the problems.