5. INSIGHT INTO SCHOOL TRANSPORT PROVISION AND SPECIFICATION
5.1 In order to enrich the findings of the quantitative survey, detailed in Chapter 4 and Appendix A, a series of interviews were held with local authority officers and bus operators. In addition, a wider discussion was undertaken at the ATCO Education Sub-Committee meeting in April 2013, attended by a large proportion of local authorities.
5.2 All interviews were undertaken conducted in confidence in person or by telephone and neither organisations nor individuals are identified in this note.
5.3 This chapter focuses on issues with a direct relevance to the specification and operation of the demand and cost forecasting model, detailed in Chapter 6. Wider issues raised during the interviews and meeting are summarised in paragraph 3.15 as prelude to the more detailed discussion on the industry structure.
5.4 In particular, the interviews provide insight into the likely implications of changes in school transport policy on stakeholders in a variety of different situations. This is to gain a better understanding of the varying perspectives on school transport provision of local authorities and bus operators in different geographical locations and contexts across the country.
5.5 A number of key cross cutting themes emerged from the stakeholder interviews, each mentioned by two or more interviewees. These included:
- seatbelts - guidance required on who would be responsible for pupils to use seat belts;
- Wi-Fi - guidance required on how to restrict access to inappropriate content;
- tenders are currently awarded on a lowest price basis which affects the quality of vehicles used;
- specifying upgraded features could effectively price some operators out of business; and
- changes in school opening hours has implications for operators and local authorities in terms of paying for school transport, which might not currently be considered by education departments within local authorities.
5.6 Seatbelts were a contentious issue for local authorities and bus operators for a number of reasons. The first key issue noted was the requirement for guidance and responsibilities on the enforcement of seatbelt use. Local authorities and operators recognised that at present children do not often use seatbelts, even when these are provided. Should seatbelt provision become a statutory requirement, questions arise as to who will ensure belts are used and, importantly, who has responsibility should pupils be found not using the equipment. Local authorities and operators believe it would be unrealistic to expect the driver to enforce such a rule, and questioned if the driver would be expected to stop the bus if pupils removed the belts.
5.7 Related to this point, the logistics of ensuring young children can use seatbelts should also be considered; at present the driver is not allowed to help children fasten their seatbelts and parents are not allowed to board the bus to help their children unless previously agreed with the local authority and bus operator. Should legislation be enacted that all children use seatbelts, it is widely considered that there will have to be some thought as to how it can be ensured that all children are capable of operating the equipment.
5.8 The final issue with the requirement for seatbelts is that the majority of buses are also used for general service routes. A number of respondents felt that seatbelts are not suitable on conventional routes. The requirement to have seatbelts for school services pose additional problems if, for example, a seatbelt is broken or damaged, operators note the vehicle would have to be taken out of service (for school contracts) until the seatbelt was repaired.
5.9 The potential disjoint between the provision of seatbelts on dedicated services, and their potential absence for pupils using general service buses, was also raised as a concern, especially if there were to be any incidents.
5.10 Consistent with issues raised with seatbelts, local authorities and bus operators believed if Wi-Fi was to be provided on buses, guidance would be required on use and responsibilities. Stakeholders were concerned that pupils could access inappropriate material on the internet. The difficulty would be in enforcing discipline and standards, as the driver will not be in a position to stop the bus. Respondents also noted that there would be a responsibility issue as and when parents complain if such a scenario occurred.
5.11 Operators did not feel that the additional costs would be prohibitive; however, they did query the necessity of providing Wi-Fi on a school service.
5.12 Both local authorities and bus operators noted issues with tender assessments and awards being made on the basis of price, although, as expected, operators were more vocal about this point. It would appear that a large number of contracts are now awarded solely on price, which some operators feel is unfair as it penalises those who invest in their vehicle fleet [and may therefore have operational costs]. It also leads to a situation where children are being taken to school on older vehicles which may be inferior. Bus operators felt that if they are to cut costs to compete in terms of price then they have little to no spare capital to invest in improvements to their fleet.
5.13 A number of operators currently feel that there is not appropriate monitoring and enforcement of operators running contracts. Whilst quality is not a key priority to win contracts, there are specific requirements which have to be met in a large number of cases (see paragraph 4.9), and it was felt that a number of lower cost operators do not maintain vehicles to the appropriate standards.
5.14 When specifying the length of contracts, local authorities note that they are in trade-off situation. Whilst longer contracts could give operators stability and time to invest, they may also preclude new entrants or force the withdrawal of existing suppliers if they are unsuccessful at a given moment in time. In the long term this reduces the amount of tenders received for contracts, which, all else being equal, would be expected to lead to a rise in tender costs.
Higher Specifications Cost Implications
5.15 Operators and local authorities recognised that requiring school services to meet potential new specifications may require significant investment in services. Whilst the bus operators will no doubt be expected to meet these costs initially, ultimately the local authorities will have to pay for these improvements through higher contract costs. Local authorities also pointed out the social cost of imposing specification requirements, as it could lead to smaller local operators being priced out of business and unable to compete with larger fleets.
5.16 Whilst the introduction of new stipulations on contracts was viewed by local authorities as likely to incur a premium on costs, this would typically be subsumed within future contract costs, particularly as operators know that the stipulation(s) must be met to remain competitive. Any upfront costs can be reduced considerably if funding is provided to equip vehicles etc, and/or a sufficient lead in time is given to any changes.
School Opening Hours
5.17 A number of issues were noted in terms of school opening hours and their effects on bus operators and their ability to service contracts efficiently. One of these issues was that operators often felt that opening and closing times of Primary and Secondary schools should be staggered and planned holistically across a given area. This would allow the operator to serve both types of schools using the same buses, potentially leading to efficiencies and, ultimately, cost savings for all parties.
5.18 The second issue was that in recent years there has been a move to change school opening hours. Critically, this can sometimes vary by school, and by day of the week. This can be detrimental to operators who run both school and general services together, as they are often not able to provide a standard Monday - Friday timetable. Consistent with the above points, such a move often means additional vehicles have to be provided to cover the school and general service, which has a cost implication for both local authorities and operators.
5.19 Both of the above points highlight the need to consider local authority budgets holistically when planning changes in education and/or transport provision, with the potential for either savings or additional costs depending on the course of action pursued.