Ministers have privately raised concerns about a lack of 6,000 public buses needed to transport children to school in England for the autumn term and have called on coach companies to help fill the gap. The pandemic has led to reduced services from bus companies in rural areas due to low passenger numbers, while social distancing measures have resulted in lower capacity on public transport. Fears have been raised that a significant portion of the 750,000 children who use public buses to travel to school will be unable to reach classrooms. Councils have responded by providing extra children-only buses. However, this may not be sufficient, and some fear significant transport shortages by the half-term break. Regardless of the start of the term, the rise of infection rates in the UK suggests that schools may experience disruption from local lockdown. Two-thirds of parents have said they intend to send their children back to school at this point, but a minority remain unsure as to what they will do. Councils are still adopting a wait-and-see approach on whether this will give rise to transport shortages.
Extra funding has been given to public transport bus companies by the government during the pandemic. However, coach firms were not included, and as a result, face potentially huge financial losses. By November, it is estimated that 18,000 of the 42,000 people working in the coach industry will lose their jobs, and nearly 16,000 coaches will be off the roads.
Earlier this month, the Department for Education issued guidance and £40m of funding to local authorities. According to the guidance, "at least 50% of [bus] journeys to school of two miles or less" need to be done on foot or by bike. Keith Glazier, the leader of East Sussex county council, and spokesman on children and young people for the County Councils Network, praised the government’s decision, but said that councils are struggling with uncertainty over the numbers. He questioned the capacity of the coaches and private buses available, stating that in a small county such as East Sussex, he was unsure if there was sufficient capacity.
Several councils have warned parents about transport shortages. Bath and North East Somerset council warned last week that because of capacity limitations, students using public transport "may not have their first choice." Kent expects many parents to drive their children to school, potentially avoiding public transport. Rob Williams, a former headteacher and now senior policy advisor at the National Association of Head Teachers, said that with so much uncertainty, it’s important for the government to give flexibility to help local authorities, schools and parents to find local solutions. Pat Harris, of Busk, which campaigns for coach and bus safety, warned of the dangers of councils using double-decker buses to transport children long distances.
The government’s priority remains the full-time return of all children to classrooms in September, as it is believed this is best for their education, development, and wellbeing.
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