School bus is no joyride

7th November 2003 at 00:00
I'm standing in the early morning drizzle waiting for the bus. Crack of dawn to allow plenty of time for the journey. Pupils shuffle moodily, swamped by games bags twice their size. We exchange yawns and morning mumbles. As the bus whooshes by, full-to-bursting, I recall the morning's hot-air soundbite on the radio, passing as policy: "We must usher in a new political era of fairness." Nothing very fair so far.

But wait, what's this on the horizon? A miraculous solution to the nation's transport and school problems, all at once. Fifty million quid is to be spent over two years to help school transport.

"Is that a lot then, Miss?"

Actually no, not when it is split between 7m schoolchildren.

"Will we get our own school bus?"

Again, not very likely. Of the 1.7m schoolchildren who travel by bus to school, 1.2m do not have their own school service. It will take a lot of buses to solve the nation's school run problem.

I reflect back to the halcyon days of walking to school. Mrs Wright, the lollipop lady, always there, knowing us all. Being able to leave the house at a reasonable time and knowing how long the journey would take.

No one was dropped off by car. Society's malice directed towards the drivers on the morning school run did not exist. Now, due to the educational free market, the era of political fairness, parental choice and league tables, pupils travel vast distances to school.

A quick poll at the bus stop shows that most pupils have caught two buses and taken the tube, a journey time in excess of 90 minutes. Being driven in a car suddenly looks delightful.

At the end of the school day, teams of three teachers armed with walkie-talkies are on bus stop duty, trying to control the human swarm desperate to get home. Members of the public curse about having to share the bus with kids shouting, being exuberant, loud and, well, kids really.

There are no special school buses timetabled to ease the burden.

In the past, the school has invited a representative from the bus company to visit and talk to pupils about behaviour expectations and the dangers of bus travel.

Today, though, it is an iron-grey man at the bus stop, with a face half-buried beneath the hood of his anorak, who snarls out a warning. His intention is to scare the children off the buses with a true tale of two boys crushed between two buses while playing "chicken" across the road. A momentary hushed silence. Then, "How much blood was there, exactly?"

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