On a November night in 1993 a teacher and 12 pupils from Hagley RC High School in Stourbridge died when their minibus crashed on the M40. The children and their music teacher, Eleanor Fry, were returning from a visit to the Schools Prom at the Royal Albert Hall.
Over the years minibus design and management has developed to incorporate new safety features. Side doors were an early improvement, followed by front-facing seats. The old "crew" buses with their side-facing bench seats were phased out. The "three-to-two" rule, which allowed younger children to sit three to a seat, was rescinded and, after the Hagley crash, seat belts were made compulsory on all passenger vehicles used for school transport.
So everything must be okay now? "No," says Dave Rogers, road safety adviser with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA). "These minibuses are still just large vans. We have concerns about loading, luggage space, security of seating - and driver hours."
There are still no regulations concerning the time teachers spend driving. ROSPA recommends that 13 hours in 24 on extended trips should be considered a maximum but there should be breaks within those 13 hours. This should be reduced considerably when the driver has been at work beforehand. In such cases, ROSPA recommends a maximum of 10 hours for work and driving. For many schools this would mean a teacher taking an evening school trip would need to take the morning off work.
Driver training is another issue. It is still possible for schools to allow staff to take out a minibus full of children after no specific training whatsoever. And, once on the road, the driver is expected to manage the group and drive.
Helen Kemp, joint head of PE at Guildford County School, Surrey, thinks managing a journey requires the same skills as managing a classroom. "We tell the children what behaviour is expected," she says. "They get in, sit down, we check the seat belts - it's routine."
Some teachers have problems with pupils who want the bus radio on or who want to play their cassettes. "No radio," says Ms Kemp firmly. "Drives me insane. I get them to sing."
"There should be a legal requirement to have a second adult," says Pat Harris from the pressure group Belt Up School Kids (BUSK). "Ninety-five per cent of accidents are down to driver error and teachers have the stress of having a bus full of kids."
In any accident it is the driver who will be held responsible - not the school, or the last person to use the bus, or the local authority. That responsibility covers the mechanical condition of the bus, the wearing of seat belts by passengers and the details of insurance - as well as the teacher's driving standards.
Training is available: LDV and Ford offer free training when a new bus is purchased from them and some local authorities provide their own training.
Enfield, in north London, has a strict policy on minibus use. Teachers have to take a test which includes a three-hour theory session, a medical and 90 minutes on the road. "It was quite an intensive experience," said Paula Felgate, head of PE at Enfield's Chace Community School. "Very thorough. Driving a minibus is different: there's the size of it and the responsibility for the children."
Ralph Lance is the minibus officer at Chace. He teaches CDT, but his responsibilities include checking the condition of the school bus regularly. "I'm familiar with vehicles," he says, "so the routine maintenance isn't a problem. But schools need someone whose role it is to do this."
ROSPA agrees, saying that each school should have someone whose role is to oversee use of the bus. "There should be a nominated person," says Mr Rogers.
But the school also has responsibilities. The Management of Health and Safety Regulations make it clear that a risk assessment should be carried out for all working activities. Headteachers should be aware that cases where buses were poorly managed or where teachers worked overlong hours could result in action under health and safety law.
Outside Britain there is even less protection, as a group of teachers and pupils found to their cost in July 1997. The party from St James's CE School in Farnworth, Bolton, were going to a holiday centre in the French Alps. Their 52-seater coach with seat belts broke down on the way and, once at the centre, a locally hired coach that had no seat belts was used for some of the journeys.
The party's coach driver was asked to drive the bus, despite having little experience of using left-hand drive vehicles.
On a narrow mountain road, the vehicle slipped off the tarmac, down a steep hillside, turning over several times. Four children were thrown from the vehicle and three died. The other 23 people on the coach were also hurt. The pathologist, David Bissett, told the inquest that all three children who died could have survived had seat belts been worn. The PE teacher who organised and was in charge of the trip, admitted that he had not checked whether the replacement bus had seat belts.
The mere existence of seat belts does not guarantee safety. The minimum requirement is lapstraps - two-point belts. Yet these do not offer the same protection as three-point belts that include a shoulder strap.
Compared with the United States, where specially designed buses with safety features are used for school transport, Britain lags behind. Both BUSK and ROSPA argue that specific regulations on minibuses are long overdue. Pat Harris would like to see Public Service Vehicle standards introduced, and Mr Rogers argues that minibus design and use needs a complete overhaul. "We think the Department for Education and Employment should take a clear lead on this," he says.
Mr Lance emphasises the importance of regular routine maintenance. Many schools have a simple checklist which drivers have to sign, but someone still needs to be responsible for ensuring that faults are followed up and maintenance is carried out. ROSPA recommends a weekly inspection by whoever has responsibility for the vehicle, as well as the inspection that every driver should carry out before taking the vehicle on the road.
A school policy should exist which governors are aware of. It should include statements about who is responsible for maintenance, for training and the conditions under which the bus may and may not be driven. Properly set up, such a policy will protect drivers and children alike. Being told the bus is not available because it is due to be serviced may be inconvenient, but nobody can argue if the service intervals are known and published in advance as part of the policy.
Similarly, it is easier to tell a deputy head they cannot drive a class somewhere because they have not had the training, if such training is built into a policy statement. Get it wrong and you could be making your explanation to a coroner.
DRIVER-TRAINING: FREE AND PAID-FOR COURSES_ Schools buying a new bus from LDV or Ford will be offered free driver training as part of the deal. Amazingly, not all schools take up the offer. Some authorities, such as Enfield in north London operate their own schemes. Most training follows principles laid down by the early police courses which reduced accidents on the force by 80 per cent. It is about defensive driving, treating every other road user as a potential accident.
A national vocational qualification designed for the transport industry could be of use for schools: the Transporting Passengers by Road course covers roadworthiness, driving and health and safety. Optional units include educational or recreational use and providing for special needs passengers. It would not be appropriate to take the whole qualification, but it would be possible for schools to pick and mix units to suit their needs. Transfed is the relevant national training organisation. Its director of sector support, Ian McRoy, says that a review of the standards could result in a tailored qualification for schools.
* Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. Tel: 0121 248 2000.
* Drive and Survive courses. Tel: 01322 291266.
* Institute of Advanced Motorists. Tel: 0181 994 4403.
* AMD (for the NVQ course). Tel: 01923 896607.