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Decked out in their own colours

Lowestoft's three high schools have their own bus service. Gerald Haigh reports. Go to Kirkley High School, Lowestoft and, as often as not, you will see two buses parked outside, a single-decker and a double-decker. Nothing special about that, of course, except that when you look a little closer you notice that in the space where the law says the name of the proprietor has to be displayed, "J B Walmsley BSc" is neatly painted .

The point here is that Jack Walmsley is Kirkley's head. In order to provide efficient transport for his pupils, he has for eight years been, in effect, proprietor of a bus company. "If this were Wales," commented a Kirkley teacher, "he would be Jack the Bus."

The reason for this lies in the fact that Lowestoft's three 13 to 18 high schools have, since the mid-Eighties, co-operated to run their sixth forms as a combined single unit, creating, in effect, their own three-site sixth-form college for the town. For this to work, regular and reliable transport for students is needed between the three sites, the most distant of which are eight miles apart. The first requirement, explains Mr Walmsley, was for a single-decker. They looked around, took advice from the authority, and found an ex-Royal Air Force bus for sale in Manchester.

The authority's engineers inspected it and pronounced it sound. Buying it, though, was the easy part. The process of government inspection, and the acquisition of the appropriate documents and licences, including a "large bus certificate", took three months. The fact that the bus was ex-military and had not already been used as a public service vehicle added to the complications.

All of this was, and still is, followed up by a rigorous programme of regular inspection not only of the vehicle but of the operating procedures, including the accounts.

Soon another single-decker and then an ex-Ipswich buses double-decker were added to the fleet, and the first bus pensioned off. (It cost Pounds 1, 000 to buy, another Pounds 1,000 to renovate, and was sold for scrap for Pounds 900 after eight years of service.) Now the fleet of one single and one double-decker has to run reliably between the three schools at the major session changeover times. There are 550 sixth-form students across the town and, at any one time, perhaps 80 of them will be travelling.

Jack Walmsley is intensely proud of the standards by which "his" bus company is run. "We are so very, very careful about it. These are our children, and we feel the same responsibility that every school feels for its own students. " Maintenance is done by a local specialist firm, and the drivers are, of necessity, all qualified public service vehicle licence holders, employed part-time. "They're often people who are also working for one of the local coach companies."

The responsibility which Mr Walmsley carries, and the commitment of his time, are both very real - his name painted on the bus is a constant reminder of this. There is no doubt, though, of his conviction that this is the right way to solve the problem.

"We did consider alternatives. At the start we asked for quotations from local bus companies to provide the transport for us. They all came out at about three times what it now costs us."

Today the buses are part of Lowestoft school life. "Once you've got it up and running and the systems are in place, then you're all right."

The whole operation has to be, by regulation, non-profit making, although the buses can be hired to local primary schools to help defray costs. And as Mr Walmsley explains: "There's a net cost to Lowestoft Sixth, but if you look at the wider picture, each school saves a considerable sum of money by being part of the consortium."

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