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Schools move to reduce teachers' driving hours: Wendy Berliner examines steps taken by heads in the wake of the Hagley tragedy

WHEN Eleanor Fry got into the driving seat of the Hagley Roman Catholic school minibus and set off for London after a full day's teaching, she was doing what countless other teachers do every day.

But since the tragedy, schools throughout the country have reviewed their safety procedures and in many cases have cut the hours teachers can drive.

At Prince William Upper School in Oundle, Northamptonshire, for example, governors have said that for any trip at the end of a school day, there has to be a relief driver on board if the total return journey time is expected to exceed three hours.

One teacher is responsible for training others to use the school minibus, including familiarisation runs. Earlier this week the governors decided to replace the existing minibus five months earlier than planned to get a vehicle with a belt on every seat. The current bus only has front seatbelts. Chris Lowe, the head teacher, said: 'It is costing more money but my colleagues and I are parents too.'

There are an estimated 60 to 100 million school trips every year. Pupils visit museums, theatres, zoos, farms and historic sites. The older ones go on geography field trips and outward bound courses. On top of this are all the trips to sporting fixtures. The trips play an essential part in broadening the school curriculum.

Many trips will be in hired coaches or buses, but for smaller groups the school minibus driven by a teacher or parent is often the most economical form of transport. Schools simply do not have the money to hire drivers. Only a minority of local education authorities require teachers to take a special driving course to prepare for driving a school minibus. Elsewhere, the usual qualifications are a clean licence and being over 25.

The fitting of seatbelts to minibuses is being slowed down in some areas because of possible problems with insurance cover. Because the Government is still refusing to make the fitting of belts to all seats in minibuses and coaches compulsory, there is an argument that an accident victim whose injuries were made worse by a seatbelt could sue.

King Edward VI School in Morpeth, Northumberland, has wanted to fit seatbelts in its minibuses since the Hagley crash and is still waiting for permission from the county council.

The school runs two minibuses and any journey of more than 100 miles round trip requires two drivers. All trips have to be pre-cleared with the school and anyone intending to drive the minibus has to go through a school-based training programme.

Michael Duffy, the head teacher, said: 'Most teachers are acutely aware of what they are taking on when they climb behind the wheel of a minibus with 13 or 14 children inside. It is the biggest responsibility you will exercise as a teacher.'

(Photograph omitted)