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.”Maria Gudbrandsen
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”.