It's time for the yellow solution

The buses that carry American children to school have been piloted successfully in parts of the country. Today, a lobby of Parliament will call for the system to be adopted nationwide. Hilary Wilce reports
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They're big, bright and American. They look out of place in our lanes and suburbs. Yet there are growing calls for them to spread over the land like an invading army.

They're big, bright and American. They look out of place in our lanes and suburbs. Yet there are growing calls for them to spread over the land like an invading army.

Yellow school buses - the kind everyone knows from The Simpsons - have been successfully introduced into a number of areas. And today, lobbyists are calling to bring them in nationally.

In fact, they say, we can't afford not to. Road congestion is growing and school runs account for 20 per cent of it. By far the best way to reduce this is to have dedicated school-bus services. In the US, they point out, more than half of children go to school by bus; here it is just 6 per cent.

And yellow buses are a world away from the tatty double-deckers and sullen drivers of our current school transport system - where one exists at all. The buses have a terrific safety record. They're used only for school runs, which means that younger children are safe and older ones can't annoy other passengers. They can be organised so pupils are picked up close to home and taken to the school door. And, with their onboard security cameras and specially trained drivers, they cut down on bullying and bad behaviour, have an impact on truancy, and deliver children to school in a better frame of mind than when they come by car or public transport.

Today, the Sutton Trust, along with the Social Market Foundation and Policy Exchange, are taking a yellow bus to Westminster and holding a seminar to drum up political support for the proposal. This faintly bizarre coalition of a charity that champions educational opportunities for poorer children, along with left-leaning and right-leaning think tanks, shows the breadth of the idea's appeal.

They say that the number of children being driven to school has doubled in the past 20 years, and the main reason for this is parents' concern about safety. And they argue that a school bus service would pay for itself two-and-a-half times over in environmental, health and social benefits. Pilot schemes in places such as Wrexham and Hebden Bridge have been popular, and they now want the proposal for a national scheme to be included in the next Education Bill, making access to school transport available for every child.

Sir Peter Lampl, the chairman of the Sutton Trust, says he became a fan of yellow buses after living in Boston and then returning to "a nightmare school run in London, which is only two miles but takes 35 minutes." The Government wants to promote cycling and walking, but the streets are much too dangerous, he says. "I would never let my children cycle or walk. One of the few things Americans do well in terms of public services is getting children to and from school, and we can learn from that."

But his prime interest is that a school bus service would give poorer parents the same freedom to choose schools that richer parents enjoy. "Kids in the top 20 per cent of family income travel, on average, two-and-a-half miles to school. Kids in the bottom 20 per cent travel just over half a mile. We want a scheme that would offer people access to, say, five local schools. It's workable and affordable. You get big cost benefits on social equity, truancy, crime. I think it's a no-brainer."

Clare Bradford, the head of Henbury School in north Bristol, agrees. "This is an area where two other schools closed and the pupils had no means of getting to ours. We have a bus dedicated to the school, doing two morning and two evening runs. More than 100 pupils use it, and there has been a significant improvement in attendance."

But the scheme has been heavily subsidised to keep costs down to a £1 a day per child, and now the city's two-year pilot programme is ending. "The local education authority says it hasn't got the money for it. We understand they have to balance the books, but we believe that if increasing school attendance is a priority, we can't afford not to have it," Bradford says.

Penny Westwood, the head of Northampton School for Girls, is also a fan. Her education authority recently withdrew school transport to single-sex and faith schools. "So when I read an article where the chief executive of First Group talked about these buses, I wrote to him and said, 'We're here.'"

The school now uses four yellow buses and a local coach, with staggered timetables. There is no subsidy. Parents pay £456 a year for a full pass, which offers pupils a long school run, plus priority on the home run; or £228 for a half-pass for shorter journeys, and which may require girls to wait for a later bus. "It's a joy to hear drivers greet girls by name, and it has helped with even minor problems of bullying. Parents are very positive, but they would like it to cost less," Westwood says.

Costs can be kept down by buying buses from European manufacturers rather than importing them from America. The buses can be good workhorses by staggering school starting-hours to allow them to serve several schools, and leasing them to other schools for outings. But they are still expensive. The Boston Consulting Group, which has costed the idea, says a national scheme for primary schools alone would require £124m of extra funding a year, falling to £83m if parents paid 50p per journey.

"It works fabulously," says Linda Howard, the managing director of First Student UK, the biggest operator, which last year ran 20 buses in seven schemes. "But the stumbling block is money. There are lots of progressive councils who want to bring it in, but school transport comes from the same budget as school dinners, and most of it goes on transporting disabled children. The Government has got to stand behind it. It seems to be one of those areas where the buck stops nowhere. It's very frustrating."

Bob Russell, the Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester, is one of many MPs who support the proposal. He says a different mindset is needed, so that ideas such as this, which straddle government departments and bring various benefits, can be properly addressed.

"I think yellow school buses are the ideal way to transport children from home to school and back again. It's a win-win situation. I can't see any downside whatsoever," he says.

However, an evaluation of yellow buses for the Department of Transport in 2003 found that, while some schemes initially reduced car journeys, car usage later rose again, showing that further measures would be needed for long-term traffic reduction. The buses are too big for some school entrances, and a bit cramped for all the bags and books. And some secondary-age students hate the embarrassment of riding in banana-coloured transport.

"But I don't care if they're painted yellow, red or blue," says Sir Peter Lampl. It's the idea that counts. And Jessica Asato, a researcher at the Social Market Foundation, says: "The Government can't have a commitment to school choice if there is only one school children can physically get to. If that's the case, all the information given to parents - league tables, everything - is a waste of time."

'They have become part of the school. Parents see them as safe and reliable'

The Magna Carta School, a technology college in Runnymede, Surrey, has had two yellow school buses for three years. Each does several staggered trips a day to and from school, and they are used for field trips and outings. They also take A-level students to a partner college in the area for lessons. When not in use, they sit in their own layby on the school site. The head, Tim Smith, is a big fan. "They are part of the school now. Behaviour is much better and parents see them as safe and reliable. They help to build a caring ethos and show that we're concerned about the community."

Runnymede Borough Council leased six yellow buses because of traffic congestion. "We aren't a charity or an education authority," says Bob Etheridge, the policy and implementation officer. "We aren't meant to do this sort of thing. But it has been 99.5 per cent excellent." Parents, pupils and schools all like them, he says. The drivers are specially trained, and the buses have reduced bad behaviour.

They have also reduced the borough's 12.5 million rush-hour car journeys by a quarter of a million. The council would like to lease a further six to cut them by half a million. The initial scheme was funded by money earmarked for improving business districts, but local businesses have turned down a proposal to help fund an expansion of the fleet. With no money available from elsewhere, the council can only hope for one further bus by September.