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.
Words like ‘excited’ and ‘delighted’ are sometimes overused in business, but how else to describe how we feel about our latest case study?
Perhaps it is because it shows a genuine step forward in the approach local authorities are taking to procuring systems.
Last year, Central Bedfordshire Council embarked on an ambitious project to streamline their applications process for home-to-school transport.
They’ve built a process that works for them by combining products from QRoutes and three other software suppliers.
Faster and more accurate
As a result, they’re now processing 53% of all applications automatically; a further 38% need only a light-touch review. Only 9% of all applications need full manual reviews.
This improves the client experience, with faster, more accurate responses through self-service online access. And it gives the planning team more time to focus on the cases that need their attention.
This modular and partnered approach marks a step-change from the cumbersome back-office solutions that have been prevalent in the industry for the last twenty years
The way things were
Typically, one central database with a rich and accurate dataset along with all-encompassing functionality on top seemed like a great idea.
The market became dominated by a few specialist suppliers who understood the business domain thoroughly and would adapt their systems by adding layer upon layer of fantastic new features.
But there were technical downsides…
Large information systems can be difficult to adapt quickly to the changing needs of an authority and technology advancements.
Organisations now want more agility, to be ready to respond to their customers using modern digital technologies.
All-encompassing solutions can take a long time to implement and onboard and are expensive to customise. Many authorities then found themselves locked-in for many years with a single supplier because the cost of change is so prohibitive.
But not any more…
Central Bedfordshire’s approach
Integrating multiple products that supports a variety of business services, such as education and transport, needs a fresh mindset. – Thinking outside the back office!
It can involve multi-supplier relationships, something which council IT and Procurement teams have been wary of in the past but, increasingly, are more comfortable with because software technology makes it easier.
Playing to partners’ strengths
This approach helps authorities build process and customer experiences that work for them. It combines the best partners’ strengths for a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.
The modular model provides more flexibility for the council to adapt and evolve systems and, importantly, to have more control over products and investment costs.
The arrival of subscription-based pricing models further increases this flexibility.
Rebalancing the power
And, finally, this approach helps authorities ensure they are getting the best quality and service.
If they are not happy with an element, they can replace it with another service provider’s solution without having to overhaul the whole system.
This places greater emphasis on the software supplier to innovate and provide value for money, putting the power back into the hands of authority.
So, yes, we are excited about this latest case study. If you can think of a better word, let me know…
The countdown to the beginning of term has begun. For now, at least, schools will return at the beginning of September and transport planners have precious little time to finalise routes for the new academic year.
In the spirit of never waste a good crisis, is this is an opportunity for us (as a society) to create a shift change towards active travel for better health and wellbeing? Let’s hope so. But, despite its benefits, it isn’t always viable. In rural authorities, distances are typically too far to expect someone to walk or cycle, and/or the routes are not safe to do so. And, of course, for many SEND children active travel isn’t an option.
On Saturday the Government released the Transport Demand Toolkit to help planners reach their best solution for their local situation. This post breaks down the guidelines and how QRoutes can help speed up processes and ensure that solutions are optimised to keep costs at a minimum.
A summary of the key guidelines
Minimal education trips on public transport
Encourage active travel
Social distance where possible
And in devising plans, consider
transporting in bubbles,
staggered start times,
exclusion zones around schools, and
how to manage public transport facilities
The capacity gap
The Government are quick to acknowledge that plans that adhere to Covid restrictions are likely to expose a capacity gap and that authorities should do the best they can, given their respective circumstances. (Which is by turns pragmatic and vague!) So how planners bridge the capacity gap and implement school transport is likely to vary by authority.
In Scotland, schools return a few weeks earlier and have already gone back. One of our customers quipped on the Friday before term started that she was thinking of ‘knitting buses over the weekend’ to fill the shortfall. In the end, she managed to procure the vehicles she needed, but it may be that some authorities have to modify plans to accommodate supply.
How QRoutes can help
So, what steps do authorities need to do and how can QRoutes help? The toolkit outlines five broad steps to creating an effective plan.
Taking these in order …
Step 1: Collect and analyse data
This is a critical step to an accurate understanding and saving time and money later.
Liaise with schools
The authorities we talk to have been doing this for some time but we’re including it here for the sake of completeness.
Establishments and planners need to work out:
What bubbles look like? (Although the guidance is that transport bubbles reflect school bubbles ‘as far as possible’, what are schools planning?)
What are the time constraints? Are staggered start times an option? (Again, feedback from customers is that some schools are actually narrowing arrival times rather than extending them, e.g. by discontinuing breakfast clubs.)
Use of school gates? Are there multiple school gates? Are one-way systems in operation? If so, what impact does this have on drop-off and pick-up points?
What are the traffic pinch-points? Are street closures, which widen the perimeter of the school, desirable and what impact does this have on drop-off and pick-up points?
How can active travel be encouraged? A comment during the Optimising School Transport webinar, hosted by Landor on 11th August, suggests a dispiriting gap between the aspiration and implementation: one school is reducing cycle parking because there is insufficient space to enable social distancing. Evaluating the likelihood of conflicting risks all of which endanger life is tricky to navigate. Schools may be (understandably) sensitive about the threat of infection to staff when young people seem to be the principle spreaders at the moment. But, on the other hand, there is a link between poor air quality and Covid deaths. Not to mention, road traffic accidents as a by-product of congestion.
Quickly and accurately understand who is entitled to home to school transport provision.
QPaths batch processes transport eligibility requests for mainstream travel using the OS Paths network, the UK’s most accurate data set for walking routes. Planners can exclude sections they know to be unsafe, set multiple gates for schools, and process 1000s of applications in minutes.
Once this is complete, planners have a list of the mainstream trips they need to plan.
Irrespective how planners proceed, there may be a need to reduce the numbers of students boarding bus stops to enable social distancing at stops before boarding, particularly where stops are shared with public services.
QRoutes can help planners quickly move passengers between stops, balancing distance from home with boarding numbers.
Step 4: Marketing, communications and engagement
At the risk of cliché, these are difficult times. Some people are worried about their health and that of their loved ones, others about their livelihoods, and others about both. Lockdown has been tough, winter looms, and tensions are running high.
And this applies to everyone from students to teachers, from drivers to operators, from planners to executives. Careful, clear communication and sensitive engagement is crucial to a smooth return to school.
QRoutes’ GIS interface with the ability to quickly evaluate different options can help show stakeholders the rationale behind decisions with better transparency than is possible with conventional reports.
There is also potential for QRoutes, as a cloud-tool, to be integrated into a digital solution to inform parents.
Step 5: Monitor, evaluate and adapt
And again, QRoutes’ ability to quickly schedule optimised solutions within planner defined constraints aids confident decisions going forward.
We’re here to help
Throughout this crisis, QRoutes has looked to support authorities (irrespective of whether they are customers) while they provide additional support to their communities.
We can’t knit buses, drivers or passenger assistants, at least, not in time. But we are ready and willing to help where we can. We have new, competitively priced products and consultancy packages to help authorities plan provision ahead of the start of term. Get in touch today to see a demo of how to plan in bubbles, set up a socially distanced fleet, or to discuss how we might help
On 12th June 2020, we held a webinar for local authority school transport planners to discuss the impact of Covid19. These are notes from the event
There has been rife uncertainty about how and when schools will return. On the 7th June all schools in England would reopen on the 29th June. By 9th June, this had been abandoned.
Nevertheless, the future still looks uncertain.
When the schools do go back after the summer holidays (will there even be summer holidays?),
Will social distancing still be in place?
Will we be planning for children to travel in bubbles?
What other measures aimed at reducing contagion will be in place?
How will these measures affect what planners plan?
And schools also have their hands full. In this fluid and rapidly changing environment, successful stakeholder communication has never been more important. We started by asking planners how the last month has been for them.
We started by looking at local authorities’ statutory obligation to
promote the use of sustainable travel and transport
make transport arrangements for all eligible children
And that transport authorities also have an interest in ensuring that the return to school and college does not
Planners can be forgiven for feeling like they’re stuck between uncertainty, looming deadlines, limited budgets and the longer strategic aims associated with the climate emergency and reducing carbon emissions.
Indeed, recognition of the demands on transport planners can be seen on the cover of this report.
And we like to think we are still here and ready to support and that speed with which QRoutes can deliver optimised solutions can give planners confidence in this age of rampant uncertainty. For example, QRoutes enables planners to
set up and use temporary bus stops as well as NAPTAN database,
plan for school road closures (to reduce congestion around schools), and
understand the impact of staggering school start times either for groups within the same school or across different schools.
Planning with confidence in an age of uncertainty. Get in touch to discuss how QRoutes can help get the answers you need, quickly
68% of attendees are looking at staggering school start times; 56% are looking at temporary road reallocation to active travel (e.g. pavement widening); and 25% are looking at using temporary bus stops.
We then heard from our guests from Birmingham City Council and National Express Accessible Transport.
They talked about how they have been responding to the crisis. They covered everything from PPE and who pays for what, to temporary screens around drivers, to personal transport budgets.
To watch the full webinar and be invited to future events, get in touch
79% of attendees are looking at offering SEND families travel budgets in place of providing transport; 17% are looking at this for mainstream provision.
It is undeniable that Personal Travel Budgets (PTBs) offer a practical solution to the pressing problems of social distancing and cost, but long-term this represents a threat to traffic congestion, air quality, and, of course, climate change targets.
We then moved on to Active Travel and the role this has in the post-Covid19 transport mix.
It is widely reported that the government have provided £250m of funding to support active travel investment. What if often missed is that this is the first tranche of a £2bn.
Temporary schemes set up to support socially distant travel during lockdown include
reallocating road space to pavements,
temporary bike lines, and
increased cycle ‘parking’.
We went to explore whether local authorities were considering access to school in decision making about active travel infrastructure and whether they should be.
QPaths, a new tool from QRoutes batch processes distance eligibility for mainstream home to school transport. It is more accurate than commonly used free tools both in distance measurements and completeness of the network.
QPaths would have reduced the number of requests eligible for a free school bus pass, as well as saving several days of work.
Our development partner
QPaths also enables local authorities to define paths as ‘unsafe’, for example if there is inadequate street lighting.
We explored an example where pupils living within 3 miles were eligible for home to school transport because of unsafe paths. And discussed the potential for this tool, with its GIS interface, to help local authorities quantify possible returns on investment.
For example, where improved walking and cycling paths could reduce future eligibility for free bus passes.
Is access to school a consideration in active travel infrastructure?
55% of attendees said access to schools is a consideration in planning active travel infrastructure. 45% were unsure as these decisions are handled by a different department.
Do you think access to school should be a consideration in planning active travel infrastructure?
81% Yes 19% Not sure
Planners feedback and discussion
In responses that echoed the opening sentiment test, planners are worried about the demands being made of them.
Overall it was a useful forum to compare notes and air ideas. To watch the full webinar, including the 30 minutes Q&A, please get in touch