Transport dilemma puts full school re-opening at risk

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Problems with transport and travel to and from school mean that official guidance for fully re-opening this September is likely to prove “unworkable” for secondary schools, an analysis has suggested.


Last week, the Department for Education (DfE) published its plans for how schools should approach full re-opening from September.

The plans, which headteachers described on Friday (July 3) as "mind-boggling” in their complexity are based around minimising infection risk by creating larger social bubbles of whole classes or even whole year groups.

This is necessary, the DfE says, if secondary schools are going to have the space and staffing to deliver the full curriculum from September.

Responding to the guidance, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said that school leaders will have to consider “implementing staggered starts, finishes, and lunch times, alongside transport to and from school, on an epic scale” in order to achieve a full return. The National Education Union called the challenge “immense”.

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said that the “logistics of keeping apart many different ‘bubbles’ of children in a full school, including whole-year groups comprising hundreds of pupils, is mind-boggling”.

However, an analysis from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) warns that it is the complexity of organising school transport given the “limited transport options currently available” that is likely to scupper the plans.

The problems come because the DfE guidance is urging schools to minimise the use of public transport. It also stipulates that how pupils are grouped on school transport should reflect their social bubbles in schools.

Schools should encourage walking and cycling and changing start times to allow journeys to take place outside of peak hours, it adds.

However, the EPI warns that around half of pupils in England do not attend their nearest school, and even those that do are not “right next door”. The problem is particularly acute at secondary level.

The analysis, by EPI’s deputy head of research Jon Andrews, shows that secondary schools typically attract pupils from up to three miles away (as the crow flies, meaning it is likely to be farther in real-terms). In rural areas, it can be significantly farther.

Furthermore, as many as one in three of all pupils at secondary school in England (around 1.1 million children) rely on either a school bus or public transport to get to school. And the vast majority of pupils travelling on school buses or using public transport have no alternative, unless they have access to a private car.

The analysis states: “One of the many concerns facing both schools and parents has been not just whether pupils should be going to school but how they are going to get there. The advice continues to be to avoid public transport and walk or cycle if at all possible.”

It continues: “The vast majority of pupils who can walk to school are doing so and only a very small proportion of those within a reasonable walking distance from school are taking public transport or school buses. In other words, if pupils are on school buses, or on public transport, it is because they have no other option unless they have access to a private car.

“So, while the government is telling schools to create bubbles of entire year groups within schools, there is currently no credible solution to the problem of them then mixing with other year groups, and other schools, on the bus home again.

“These are difficult problems to fix and the government is now asking local authorities to work with schools to identify typical routes to schools and the potential to move to other modes of transport and consider other ways to manage demand on transport.”

Mr Andrews said: "Schools will be going to great lengths to minimise the risk of infection during the school day with bubbles of year groups and distancing where possible. But a significant number of pupils are likely to mix with those from other year groups and even other schools on their journey to and from school.

"There are no easy solutions to this, and schools and local authorities will have to work together the best they can. But the government needs to be open about any assessment they have made of the risk that travelling to and from school poses.
"While there is a very serious risk of a second pandemic wave, with local and national lockdowns, the government must also have a robust ‘Plan B’ that will allow all pupils to work effectively at home in the autumn and winter. All children – not just the current ‘priority groups’ should be given home access to IT, such as laptops, and additional provision for online tutoring is needed."

  • Andrews: Getting pupils back into school: the unresolved problem of transport, EPI, July 2020: https://bit.ly/2VWj8ms
  • SecEd: Headteachers face up to 'mind-boggling logistics' of full reopening in September, July 2020: https://bit.ly/2NPAPQb


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