QRoutes is delighted to be taking part the annual Transport Seminar for the Association of Public Sector Excellence (APSE). The event is being held at Chesford Grange in Warwickshire on 28th June 2023.
We’ll be presenting with Eleanor Grieve of Scottish Borders on their ongoing digital transformation of home-to-school transport.
Families often assume personal travel budgets (PTBs) can only be spent on direct travel costs. In reality, they can also cover other expenses, but sometimes council officers need to step in to explain.
The school transport planning team at Swindon Borough Council supports around 900 SEN children. One young man found the journey difficult, despite travelling in a single occupancy taxi. As a result, his behaviour was often difficult to manage during the journey. It got to the point that the taxi driver refused to take him.
The mother was distraught. She has three children at different schools and couldn’t be in three places at once. What was she supposed to do?
Exploring options with the family
Kerry Cope, Team Leader In the Travel North Hub at Swindon Borough Council worked closely with the mother to explore options.
Looking at things more closely, the middle child who was 13 could walk themselves to school. However, the youngest was still at primary school and did need accompanying to school. “I can’t be in two places at once.”
Kerry discovered that the primary school had a breakfast club. Perhaps the personal travel budget could pay for the youngest child to got to breakfast club, so mum could drop the statemented boy to school herself?
Personal travel budgets can cover more than direct travel costs
The suggestion of using the personal travel budget to pay for childcare for her youngest child surprised the mother. “Breakfast club isn’t a travel cost” she said. But Kerry reassured her that the personal travel budget doesn’t have to spent on exclusively on travel costs.
Personal travel budgets (PTBs) often have a mileage element, but they can cover other expenses too. Indeed, PTBs be used to cover any legitimate cost that enables the parent (or carer) to provide transport for their SEN child to get to school. In this case, breakfast club for her youngest child. The restriction is that the recipient family cannot receive more than the cost (i.e. cannot make a profit).
Working brilliantly for everyone
The arrangement works brilliantly for everyone. The young man is more relaxed about going to school and during his journey. In turn, this means mornings are calmer for the whole family unit.
Why am I telling you this?
As the national shortage of drivers (and passenger assistants) available for home-to-school transport continues, many councils are looking to personal travel budgets as a way to meet the shortfall.
PTBs are not a suitable option for all situations but, sometimes the name, ‘personal travel budget’, causes families to discount it before they’ve considered it. Taking the time to talk with families and understand their challenges can make all the difference.
The national shortage of drivers is a well-documented news story. What is less well-known is the challenge facing local authorities in recruiting passenger assistants – the people who supervise and help children with special needs to travel safely between home and school.
Psychology lecturer Maria Gudbrandsen was drawn to our stand at a recent conference because she had worked as a passenger assistant when she was a student. Now working as an academic at the University of Roehampton, she specialises in clinical neuroscience and autism.
Maria spoke to us about the profound fulfilment she had as a passenger assistant and said she “wouldn’t have minded doing it for the rest of my life”.
“I don’t think people really know what being an assistant in transport entails and how rewarding it can be to be a part of that hour of children’s lives.
When Maria started working at the school, she was assigned afternoons to travel home on the bus with students with special needs. She didn’t realise at first how important it was for these children to have the same person every day and how it created a “safe space and security” for them.
“In the beginning, I thought ‘oh I have to do the buses, that means I’ll get home later’. But then I realised it wasn’t just ‘doing the buses’ – it was part of making a difference to a child.
“You have the same children with you every day. You know the route. It’s very important if you’ve got autism that you know exactly what that route is and how you’re getting home.”
She said the handover with the parents was vital because the passenger assistant can let them know whether their child has had a good day or whether they needed a rest when they arrive home.
The buses Maria worked on were small with a maximum of eight children. Passenger assistants were part of the routine of the journey, with the continuity of staff creating a sense of security for the young people.
Being a passenger assistant makes a difference
Maria thinks people need to know what being one of these “extra people” involves. She said if one of her students came to ask for advice about working as a passenger assistant, she’d tell them it was an important thing to do because it “really does make a difference”.
Maria thinks what makes a good passenger assistant is to be a “caring and loving person who wants to make a difference” – it’s “part of your personality and doesn’t need special skills”. She said “just being kind and warm was enough to do a good job”.
Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. We invited Huw Thomas Jones, head of service at North Somerset Council, to share his team’s experience of what they “did next when things went wrong”.
Huw’s team were faced with every school transport planner’s nightmare … three days before the beginning of the school year in September 2019, a software system they were using completely failed.
This happened despite doing all the due diligence required when procuring something from an outside supplier.
They declared a council emergency and had to “go back to basics” using spreadsheets and sending letters. But Huw’s “very small but very effective internal team” managed to turn it around.
created an internal database, completely in-house;
redesigned their communication strategy, including a parent portal;
began their journey with QRoutes.
A member of the audience asked about their main learning from the original procurement. Huw said that they have asked themselves if they did something wrong. However, an internal audit found that the team followed all the right steps, including giving the supplier an opportunity to put things right.
Most of the team preferred the in-house solution as it better fitted their processes. And feedback from the parent/carer forum about the service to the clients was positive.
Next steps are to evaluate, improve and repeat.
We’re hosting another School Transport Seminar in Newcastle on Friday 27th January. The event is free to attend for local authority officers involved in the provision of home to school transport. However, places are limited – register now to secure your place
We invited home to school transport planners from councils across England and Wales to take part in a QRoutes School Transport Seminar in Bristol.
Our business development director Jeff Duffell welcomed everyone and explained what we hoped to achieve. He said: “We are bringing all these local authorities together to get people talking – as a company want to give something back.”
The School Transport Seminar kicked off with a presentation by Jason Salter, Head of Service Passenger Transport at Wiltshire Council. He’s also chairman of ATCO (Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers). Like many participants at the seminar, Jason is very experienced and has been “doing the job for 30 years”.
Like most of businesses and organisations, local authorities have been affected by the pandemic. Jason highlighted how councils were having to prepare for the “Covid bulge” – and how the impact of the virus has exacerbated the ongoing resource problems when providing transport for children with special educational needs.
All local authorities operate differently – Wiltshire is a unitary authority – but all councils share some of the same problems. Whether it is a city council providing services for urban residents or an authority with rural challenges, everyone talked about driver shortages, the difficulty in recruiting passenger assistants and managing the expectations of schools, parents and carers.
Jason asked: “What is our role as commissioners of transport?”. In his view, it was to “build capacity into our transport and labour markets in order to meet current and future demand by a dedicated resource”.
He talked about the decreasing number of taxi drivers available and the need to make it easier for taxi drivers to be licensed. He’s involved in a big piece of work being done nationally to put pressure on the National Association of Taxi Licensing for an expedited pathway for SEN drivers which, for example, doesn’t include a ‘knowledge test’.
Jason described how his team was structured and discussed the benefits of having a member of staff with “one foot in transport and one foot in SEND”, someone who can act as a conduit between the two departments.
Jason praised his team for working hard to ensure service users’ needs were taken seriously. He worries home-to-school transport is not taken seriously enough by those in government – but said they were lucky at Wiltshire Council as “the senior people get it”.
Rounding up his presentation, he said “the people who’ve made the effort to get here today – care about this”.
We’re hosting a second School Transport Seminar in Newcastle on 27th January. Register now to secure your place
The School Transport Seminar is a great opportunity to compare notes and share ideas with people who are facing similar challenges to you.
It isn’t easy to deliver statutory (let alone discretionary) services when budgets are shrinking, demand is increasing, and the shortage of drivers is pushing prices up. And that’s before contemplating the added complications of insufficient school places and new traffic limitations, such as low traffic neighbourhoods and clean air zones.
The agenda is still being finalised. However, so far it includes presentations from
Jason Salter, Head of Service at Wiltshire CC,
Huw Thomas Jones, Transport Commissioning Manager at North Somerset,
Joshua Dean, Senior Transport Planning Officer at North Somerset.
If you have suggestions or an interesting case study that you’d like to share, please get in touch.
We recently held a meeting for 19 councils from across the UK with more than 30 home-to-school transport planners taking part.
It was brilliant to hear and see all the comments as they discussed common challenges.
Themes raised during the meeting included contract ‘hand-backs’, the current national shortage of drivers, and the expectations of schools and parents.
Driver shortage ‘biggest challenge’
Most planners felt the biggest challenge to keeping costs down was the driver shortage, closely followed by the rise in the price of fuel. A limited supply of vehicles also made it difficult to be financially efficient.
Assessing the validity of cost increases
Many planners talked about drivers “taking advantage” including an example of a driver asking for a 40% increase.
During the discussion, it emerged that several authorities don’t ask operators for a breakdown in costs. One respondent shared a rule of thumb for costs which attributes 33% to the driver, 33% to the operator, and 33% to the fuel. One participant pointed out that some drivers are also operators.
Exploring alternative models to keep costs down
None of the attendees mentioned having internal fleets. However, QRoutes knows of a couple of councils that are exploring plans to bring in an internal fleet. This is to improve access vehicle utilisation.
We would love to hear what planning teams think about how this could work.
Electric vehicles and PSVAR compliance are reasonably well represented in the vehicles used.
Differences in how councils operate compliance
When talking about compliance, the differences in how each council operates emerged – some have compliance officers, another has a ‘quality assurance officer’, and another council makes their compliance checks when complaints or issues are raised.
One council said they worked alongside their compliance manager and after checking issues would possibly go out to a school and check the situation.
High expectations from schools and parents
The topic which created the most debate was about the expectation of schools.
Comments included schools are overwhelmed with their own challenges; they “have enough to deal with to worry about transport so they don’t engage”.
And that sometimes schools want “immediate changes when sometimes it is simply not possible” due to current vehicle and/or staff shortages.
Most of the planners taking part in the webinar seemed to have experienced similar problems with schools due to their “huge expectations”, with schools often blaming the transport staff.
Suggestion: Some of our customers use QRoutes to explain the implications of transport decisions to stakeholders. The ability to quickly reschedule different solutions and show them on the map can help planners communicate the reasons for choices clearly. This can be particularly helpful when the school stakeholders don’t know the geography of the area well.
Occasionally planners are accused that they don’t understand the needs of individual pupils. Whereas, on the contrary, planners are trying to accommodate the needs of all the children on the vehicle.
The emotions around SEN transport can run high and a transport planner’s job involves a lot more than working out routes from home to school.
When the family-school-transport relationship works well
Some planners have had a more positive experience and said the schools help by acting as a go-between with the parents. This is particularly helpful where families’ use English as a second language.
Other examples included schools that let the planners know if a pupil is not coming in so they can cancel the transport.
One planner said it helped to be a “visible presence” at the school as they visit regularly.
QRoutes helps planners find efficiencies in how home to school transport is delivered. Its solutions use fewer vehicles (fewer drivers), less mileage (less fuel), and improve the travel experience for clients.
Start with a Snapshot report to explore what's possible.
QRoutes is delighted to welcome senior transport planning consultant Deborah Squire to the team. Deborah has more than 25 years home-to-school route planning experience in mainstream and SEND education.
She has worked for both small and large local authorities and started her career as a transport assistant in Wrexham in 1996.
She then moved to Flintshire County Council where she was transport manager in social services. Her most recent job was at Birmingham City Council, the UK’s largest local authority, where she managed a team of more than 40 transport staff.
Deborah says the role of the planner is “ever changing” with teams coming under more pressure as local authorities struggle with shrinking budgets and a rise in students with special needs.
Referring to the specific challenges planners face in organising home-to-school journeys for SEND children, Deborah says: “Understanding the needs of the pupil and ensuring the correct information is provided is key.
“Especially with children who struggle with change, it is really important to get the transport right first time. Any changes can cause disruption, which could lead to behaviour problems which may result in one-to-one transport at great expense to the council.”
The pandemic created more challenges for planners who often had to deal with last minute operational changes without warning.
Deborah says: “Due to Covid especially, there is a driver shortage as contractors struggle to retain and recruit drivers. This has had a significant impact on contractors, resulting in increased costs.
“This is where QRoutes benefits to maximise the use of vehicles, reduce the demand for drivers and bring down expenditure.”
She says she has seen many things over the years – including a day when she was monitoring vehicles arriving at a day centre and to her “amazement” a saloon car arrived with its boot flapping up and down due to a wheelchair wedged in the boot. Or the time when she had to deal with children upset by their bus driver holding up a dead rabbit. He thought they’d be interested in “some recent roadkill” he was taking home for his dinner.
Deborah’s tips for a smoother ride when managing relationships between local authority planning teams, politicians and contractors involve being open and realistic about what can be done.
“In previous roles working in transport, expectations would need to be managed between parents, contractors, councillors and schools.
“My tip would be to be honest about what can be done and what can’t be done but be open to ideas and options within certain parameters.”
A fantastic addition to our expert team
QRoutes’ CEO David Stewart says: “We’re thrilled Deborah has joined us. Customers tell us that one of our strengths as a software supplier is that we understand school transport. And Deborah’s wealth of experience makes her a fantastic addition to our expert team.”
The lack of bus drivers has disrupted many home-to-school routes for both mainstream students and those with special needs, who may need a taxi or specialist vehicle.
Costs are going up
Some local authorities have told us their costs are increasing as operators charge double, and sometimes triple, compared to previous contracts.
When we calculate the savings QRoutes finds our customers, we estimate the cost of a contract at £20k, but we’ve heard stories of new contracts costing in the region of £70k.
The increase in fuel prices is also having an impact on budgets.
Distress for children
Parents of children with special needs have been sharing stories on social media about the distress caused by the disruption and uncertainty.
One mum said her autistic daughter relied on a routine and familiarity. She said the confusion at the beginning of the school year had caused upset at an already stressful time.
“She’s had tears, meltdowns and mental health issues and it’s just not acceptable. Parents are fuming, we are very angry.”
The Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) estimated there was a national shortage of 4,000 bus drivers and suggested areas hit the hardest were Scotland, the north east of England, Bristol and the South West.
CPT said: “It is having an impact across the country. More bus drivers are quitting than we can recruit and talk of higher-paid jobs in road haulage is adding to the problem.
“Some have unquestionably been attracted to lorry driving by all this talk about wages increasing.”
Covid makes things worse
Bus operator First West of England said they were short of about 70 drivers in Bristol and Bath. And said the situation had been exacerbated by some existing drivers having to self-isolate or take time off sick after testing positive for Covid-19.
Efficient routes help
QRoutes route optimisation helps our customers find ways to deliver journeys which often need fewer vehicles than other solutions. With the shortage of drivers pushing costs up, this is more important than ever.