Around the world of school travel

In this special guest post, school transport expert Sian Thornthwaite looks at the challenges of the school journey around the world and finds an increasing amount of common ground. Sian is the founder of specialist school transport consultancy STC and co-founder of Interchangeability, an international school transport conference taking place 15-18th June 2014, near London.

Pupils walking along a cliff-side to a school in China (Atlantic Cities/Reuters)

The walk to a school in China (Atlantic Cities/Reuters)

Anyone working in passenger transport in the UK is aware that school admissions season is upon us, meaning transport applications and challenges over entitlement to free or subsidised travel. Does a child live just over the 3 mile distance, should you measure it from the gate, front door, child’s bedroom door or his bed?! When is a school the nearest one, when is a walking route walkable?

Despite being a wealthy western country, the UK is mean with its transport offer to young people – only 10% qualify for free school travel, outside the PTEs few have any concessionary fares, and the offer is being drawn ever tighter. Authorities are withdrawing post 16 transport, removing free travel for those attending faith schools or increasing charges in an attempt to balance diminishing budgets. There is little doubt that for pupils and parents in the UK the school journey will become more difficult and expensive in future years.

Despite this, few young people in the UK face an impossible journey to school. Many will complain of traffic levels, road safety, fears of abduction, or the inconvenience for parents of having to take children when they work. These fears and problems are real and many countries make life considerably easier – half of pupils receive free travel in the States, a third in Sweden – but what of elsewhere?

Globally more than 57 million primary school age children are out of school (UNESCO, June 2013) – not through truancy, school phobia or absenteeism – but often because they cannot get there. Half will never set foot through the school door; a further 23% will drop out. One major reason is their journey to school is too long, difficult or dangerous.

My transport career started in Northumberland 30 years ago. One of my first tasks being to check transport contracts for children living on Lindisfarne, where tides dictated whether they went to school that day on the mainland, teacher came to them, or they boarded. However, the inconvenience of tide times pales into insignificance compared to journeys for many young people where damaged infrastructure, flooding, armed conflicts and wild animals, not to mention extremely long distances all contribute to being unable to get an education.

Recently, I’ve been fortunate to work with education and transport providers in China and the Middle East. Such countries are expanding their passenger transport systems and building new schools at dizzying speed, yet there as here concerns about both personal security and road safety feature strongly. There is ongoing discussion about how children with special needs are included. In developing cities as here sustainability, congestion and pollution are major concerns and the peak hour demands of the school journey a major contributing factor. Escalating transport costs and rapidly rising rates of childhood obesity are also concentrating minds around the world.

UK children may not have to brave wild elephants as their Sri Lankan counterparts do on their school journey; nor do transport planners here have to think too hard about designing bus services to cope with 40+ degree temperatures as in Abu Dhabi, but whether delivering passenger transport in Dubai, Delhi, Denver or Dudley there’s increasingly common ground.

Parents’ and pupils’ concerns are universal – access to education, increasing costs, timeliness, quality of service, personal security and safety. Policy makers face the same challenges of reducing road congestion, tackling childhood obesity and balancing limited budgets against rising expectations. All must recognise that passenger and school transport matters.

School transport, school planning, special needs, working and consulting with young people, travel training, marketing bus services to young people, and dealing with the media will all be themes covered at our upcoming school transport conference June 15-18th 2014, near London. Discounts are available on day rates and full conference for pteg members.

Sian Thornthwaite