How school transportation compares in the U.K.

James Blue
Posted on March 31, 2015

James Blue is general manager of School Bus Fleet.
James Blue is general manager of School Bus Fleet.
I gave you a brief introduction of myself in my first editorial last month, but there’s one pertinent personal detail I didn’t mention: I’m British.

My family and I moved to the U.S. about two years ago. Naturally, I didn’t grow up riding an American school bus, but I can tell you that even “across the pond,” the big, yellow bus is recognized as an icon of the American education system.
Since joining SBF, I’ve been learning a great deal about school bus transportation, especially its remarkable safety record and its vital role in students’ education.

I thought it would be interesting to compare the American pupil transportation system to that of the U.K., and I got a handle on that via an encounter at the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) Summit in Kansas City, Missouri, last fall.

At the Summit, I met many people from the U.S. and Canada who are involved in pupil transportation: district-level directors, state directors, school bus and equipment manufacturers, etc. What I didn’t expect was that I would meet someone from my original corner of the world.

Sian Thornthwaite is a U.K.-based school transportation consultant, but she is also well-versed — and well-known — in the U.S. industry. I had a nice chat with Sian, and I later asked for her insight on school transportation in the U.K. and how it compares to the U.S.

Probably the most widely recognized vehicle in the U.K. is the iconic double-decker red bus. But, you may be asking, do the Brits have school buses?

While buses in the U.K. aren’t usually yellow, there is, in fact, a school transportation system. More than a million children in the nation use school transport provided by transit buses, contracted coaches, mini-buses and taxis each day.  

The U.K.’s lack of a standard yellow bus is a prominent difference between the British and American school transportation systems, but the two have more similarities than you might expect.  

As in the U.S., British school transportation varies by state. Sian explains that rules as to who qualifies for transportation are slightly different in the U.K.’s constituent countries: Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Local education authorities can also provide additional services. 

In the U.K., as in the U.S., school-age children usually qualify for free school transport if they live more than a certain distance from their nearest school (typically 2 or 3 miles) or if they have special needs.

Across Europe, bus and coach transportation is tightly regulated. Drivers undergo vetting and extensive training. Vehicle testing and standards — including a requirement for lap-shoulder seat belts for all children — have fostered an excellent safety record for school transport in the U.K.

Pupil transportation managers in the U.S. also have much in common with their British counterparts, Sian points out. All face pressure to reduce budgets, meet parents’ expectations, manage bullying and behavior on buses, and respond to students’ changing needs.

There is one fundamental difference for pupil transporters on the U.K. side of the pond: they drive on the left. But I wouldn’t recommend trying that here in the U.S.

Related Topics: NAPT

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