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Who'll ride shotgun?

Colin Wakeling wants adult supervisors to eradicate bad behaviour on school buses. Thanks to well publicised accidents, and the activities of the BUSK (Belt-Up School Kids) campaign, safety on school transport is in the news. Rather than the regulations the Scottish Office has chosen to introduce, BUSK is demanding a specific School Transport Act. It wants speed and route restrictions, seat-belts to be worn at all times and adult supervision.

Scottish Office figures reveal that throughout Scotland more than one in five pupils receive free travel to and from school. Not surprisingly the proportion of pupils is higher in rural than urban areas. While 11 per cent of primary pupils were given free transport, this involved nearly one in three secondary pupils. At the time of the last census, the majority of the 156,953 pupils transported daily used buses, while the proportion using contract, as opposed to public, services increased from 55 per cent in 1990 to 62 per cent in 1995. That trend is likely to continue.

For example, the Scottish Office acknowledged: "Fife has a higher than average percentage of secondary pupils receiving free transport due in part to the education authority's policy of centralising secondary provision in a relatively small number of large secondary schools."

School closures are again on the agenda. This will inevitably increase the numbers of pupils being "bussed". BUSK and other campaigners have focused on vehicle safety and the danger of "cowboy" operators. It is in this spirit that Scottish police forces, in co-operation with the traffic commissioners and local authorities, mounted a series of spot checks on vehicles. In Lothian and Borders, police said they were "very pleased with the standard of most vehicles . . . "operators had co-operated fully with police when asked to rectify defects". None of these defects represented a serious threat to child passengers.

More significantly, almost a third of 28 taxis examined in the Lothian and Borders area were found to be in breach of the conditions of their taxi licence.

However, the press releases did not mention that one of the buses stopped in Borders received a delayed prohibition notice because of a broken arm rest, damaged by the very pupils about whose safety so much concern has been expressed. This is not an isolated incident. While damage to seating is most common, pupils have set light to vehicles, used hair sprays as flame throwers and broken or wrenched out windows. To prevent pupils joyriding one operator hoses out luggage compartments before school journeys. It is small consolation that behaviour may be better in the mornings than at the end of the school day. A row that is said to have led to a recent pupil stabbing in West Lothian apparently originated in an incident on a school bus.

Such behaviour is not confined to contract buses, as anyone who has travelled on public services at the start and end of the school day will testify. The behaviour and total disregard for safety displayed by pupils milling around roads and pavements close to many schools is a fair reflection of an attitude which does not improve when the bus is boarded.

Incidents like ones recently described by a fearful Midlothian pensioner are all too common. Her hair was pulled by a teenager, one of a group that regularly shouted foul language, threw paper at passengers and jumped up and down on the bus. SMT service 141 is not unique.

Teachers complain that they face increasing levels of misbehaviour and lack of respect, especially, but not uniquely, from secondary pupils. It is not surprising that such behaviour spills on to school transport. One in three secondary pupils is, after all, "bussed". While one operator described the situation as "constant grief", local authority representatives seem more relaxed, often categorising incidents as localised and sporadic. Having let the contract, they appear to take limited responsibility for what happens thereafter.

Although the Scottish School Board Association recognises that parents may be held responsible for damage, in practice the operator is expected to carry the costs of repairs and loss of revenue within the contract price. Competitive tendering acts to depress prices. If operators are expected to cover such outlays themselves, it is hardly surprising that they use "heritage" vehicles on school contracts or cut costs in other ways. If legislation requires more modern vehicles, local authorities will have to budget for increased transport costs.

Education authorities generally approach such issues reactively. They expect schools to deal with the problem of bad behaviour on school transport in the first instance, with or without police involvement. To a degree this policy may be realistic since schools have day-to-day experience in dealing with individual troublemakers. But while schools do have a responsibility to educate pupils and ensure they understand the rules of safe travel, they can only be effective if they have the support of local authorities and parents.

Some authorities consider short-term supervision of pupil buses but only to tackle specific instances of persistent misbehaviour. It is in this area that supervisors have most to offer, even though those from the same areas as badly behaved pupils are vulnerable to intimidation if they make their presence felt. Bus drivers cannot be expected to watch for and check every sign of misbehaviour, as well as concentrate on their driving, especially if the vehicle is a double decker. But education departments will not welcome any increase in costs without extra funds.

Parents want operators to fit seat-belts and use modern vehicles, and this means local authorities must be prepared to pay the market rate and tackle bad behaviour. Cut-price deals are superficially attractive, but are not in the long term interests of the bus industry or pupils. If education authorities will not take reasonable steps to prevent vandalism, they must be prepared to see the costs of reflected in contract prices. If operators are not allowed to put badly behaved pupils off vehicles, local authorities must be prepared to provide supervisors, or exercise their power to withdraw bus passes, thus placing a clear responsibility on parents to make alternative travel arrangements.

Parents do have responsibilities. Police in Fife commented: "They should not forget that they have an important role to play in educating their children to behave properly on school buses." This is a view endorsed by the school board association. Parents must realise that their responsibilities do not start and finish at their front door. How many are like the irate parent who complained vehemently that the seats were not fire retardant after her daughter had been burned while setting light to one?

Such an attitude should not surprise us since it mirrors the complaints made by teachers of a lack of support from parents in dealing with bad behaviour in school. It is in the interests of parents to become actively involved in ensuring standards of good behaviour on buses, particularly to guard against bullying.

There is a need to improve overall standards of school transport, and a continuing need to ensure that licensing authorities, education departments and police co-operate routinely and effectively to ensure they are maintained. But this should not mask the need for improved behaviour on school buses. All those involved in school transport, not just the operators, but the Government, local authorities and parents, must acknowledge their responsibility to ensure improved safety is matched by improved behaviour. That will cost money. Pupil transport can no longer be run on the cheap.

Colin Wakeling is principal teacher of history at an Edinburgh high school. He has an interest in public transport.

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