What's big, yellow and headed this way?
Ah, memories of a long-lost American childhood. Of stoically waiting neck-deep in snow for the big, yellow school bus. Of clambering on board day after day to witness the psychological warfare, the taunts, the flying spitballs as we wove in and out of one boring suburban street after another in an hour's journey that by car would have taken 20 minutes. Those were the daysI The big yellow school bus has an iconic place in American life and mythology. The kids in America's first family, The Simpsons, go to school in one every day. So do those robotic nerds in South Park. I suspect even Dorothy in Forties Kansas skipped on to a school bus every day, Aunty Em running after her with a forgotten slice of apple pie.
The yellow bus, you have to understand, isn't simply a vehicle for getting from home to school and back again. It has been a symbol of protection from the big, bad world outside since the 1920s. It's a home away from home, promising order in a world of chaos as it shifts 54 per cent of the US's primary schoolchildren to school every day.
And if First Group, one of the UK's biggest bus and train operators, gets its way, the great, lumbering vehicles with all the elegance of a tank will soon be at a bus stop near you. The company runs the second biggest service in the US and is in discussions with 15 local authorities, among them Greater Manchester, about setting up a pilot scheme over here.
Roger Jones, chair of Greater Manchester's transport committee and member of Salford's education committee, can't wait to see the buses trundling through the streets. "At the moment, school and special needs transport costs pound;30 million, but less than 15 per cent of pupils use it," he says. "Most LEAs are having difficulties with school buses - particularly with special needs transport - and are well over their budget. If First Group is keen, I'm even more keen to try it."
The selling point, says Martin Helm of First Group, is that "it is not just a bus service. It's an integrated door-to-school concept designed to be 100 per cent safe and secure. In the US, parents like their children using school buses because of the safety aspect, and schools like it because children come to school in a better frame of mind, ready to start the day." Things must have changed since my schooldays, then.
And in the UK they've changed dramatically in other ways. According to the Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions, fewer schoolchildren are walking to school than ever before. The proportion of journeys to school taken by car has rocketed in the past 10 years, from 16 per cent to 29 per cent. The proportion of primary schoolchildren walking to school has dropped from 67 to 55 per cent over the same period; among secondary school pupils, the fall is from 52 to 43 per cent.
There's a good reason for this: the average distance from home to school has increased. In 1986, secondary school pupils lived on average 2.3 miles from school; 10 years later, it was 3.1 miles, increasing the length of the average journey to school by a third. For primary school children, the distance rose from 1.1 to 1.3 miles. Inevitably, this has led to an increase in the number of cars on the road.
Car journeys to school account for 20 per cent of rush-hour traffic but, says the DETR, are often less than a mile. One in four secondary schoolchildren uses public buses to get to school while only 7 per cent travel on transport provided by their local authority.
John Prescott's department wants to see more children walking, cycling or taking the bus to school. The Transport Act, now going through Parliament, provides money for local authorities to develop integrated transport policies, which must include bus use.
he School Travel Advisory Group, whose members include parents, teachers and governors as well as public transport operators and government representatives, recommends that affordable bus travel to school be made available to all children up to age 16. In addition, all bus drivers should be given training on safety issues and dealing with child passengers. Under current law, LEAs must provide free transport for children up to the age of eight who live more than two miles from their nearest primary school and for children up to the age of 16 more than three miles away.
Which is where First Group's idea of painting the towns, cities and rural areas of Britain yellow comes in. As well as helping LEAs fulfil their legal obligations, it would be providing a service that it believes appeals to schools and parents. As First Group chief executive Moir Lockhead puts it: "Our service is more than just providing a bus. It's a partnership between the school, the parents and the company. In America, children are picked up from within 100 yards of their homes. The driver is the same every day; he knows each child and ticks them off on a list. The driver is often a parent at the school and is in direct contact with the company's operations room or the school itself."
This might be fine for rural Kansas or the suburbs of Springfield, but how it would work here remains to be seen. And what about the Department of Health's warnings about children needing more exercise? A few steps out the door to a bus stop instead of hotfooting it a mile up the road is hardly the answer.
But what can't be denied is that the yellow bus makes for a different transport experience. As well as having high backs with extra strong padding, all seats are fitted with lap belts in line with British safety standards. It also has a high floor, designed to reduce the impact if a vehicle were to hit it from the side. But the high floor is not good news for the disabled, an important issue given that many local authorities currently use commercial - and expensive - taxi services to get children to special schools.
If the size of the bus doesn't put people off, what may go on inside will be a strong pull for LEAs and parents alike. First Group's Martin Dean explains: "Drivers have discipline report forms, and if there's a problem on the bus, they go straight to the school principal. Usually, a meeting will be set up between the children who have been disruptive and the school, often with the driver present." There's also the attractiveness of a system that cuts out public transport; stranger danger is high on parents' worry lists.
First Group might be counting on the gimmick factor to sell its American buses to British schools, but it's the mom and apple pie factor - security and safety - that could clinch the contracts to put these klutzy, custard-coloured vehicles on British streets.
ALL ABOARD WITH BART
It's good enough for Bart and Lisa Simpson, so is it good enough for our schoolkids? As part of its initial maketing push, First Group has brought one of its yellow buses to the UK. Year 5 and 6 pupils from Lady of Dolours primary school in west London recently spent their playtime inside the bus - and they liked what they saw.
Colm Mondesir, 10, says: "I prefer the American bus to ordinary London buses. There's more legroom and lots of seats and two emergency doors that might come in handy. And the colour's bright, so it stands out on busy streets."
Schoy Jones (pictured), also 10, likes the idea of "just having schoolchildren on the bus, so it would protect you against having to sit next to dangerous people. Some mothers really get worried about children going to school on the ordinary bus. There might be a fight or something and the cameras sometimes don't work. But on a school bus, the driver can see everybody."