When New Zealand’s first school buses started up in 1924, the roads were rough and the Ford Model T buses had flapping canvas sides and wooden benches covered in thin leatherette. Our predecessors at the Department of Education set up the service so isolated children in the backblocks would have the same chance to attend a well-equipped school as their city cousins.
Even well into the 1950s, rural roads were so rough that children were regularly sick on the journey. But it was still better than walking or riding by horseback.
Today, thankfully, the roads are smoother and the vehicles are modern and safe. But 90 years later, we at the Ministry of Education still run our school bus service by exactly the same rules – we get kids to school if communities don’t have public transport.
Each day, across the country, we carry 100,000 children to school in rural or semi-rural areas, at a cost of $175m each year. Only a minority of students are eligible for a school bus. The vast majority of students – about 600,000 students – get to and from school safely each day using public transport, a lift from a parent, or by walking or cycling.
We are reviewing school bus services in the Wakatipu Basin because the rapid rise in population here means that public transport is now available.
It’s part of our regular review of services around the country to keep up with population changes. North of Hamilton, for example, new school bus routes may be needed because of a lack of public transport to a new school that will be built there. We need to ensure we have the resources for communities like these in genuine need.
In the Wakatipu Basin we carry about 750 students a day on 16 routes. On ten of those routes, there are now public buses travelling along the same or very similar routes, run by a professional, qualified bus operator who meets all the national safety standards. These ten school bus routes, carrying 490 students a day, are the ones we want to discuss with the community.
We have listened to the feedback so far, and as a result have slowed down the process. We have dropped our initial proposals to make changes to the services at the start of 2015.
Within the next few weeks we will be sending out information leaflets to schools to share with parents, and so schools can collect parent feedback. Once we’ve heard more about parents’ views, we will talk further with schools and councils to develop future transport options.
We absolutely understand that ending school buses on these routes would mean a significant new cost for those families switching to public transport. Any changes we do make will take into account the impact on parents. However we also want to be fair to all other families around New Zealand and apply our rules equally.
We expect we will come up with a range of options in early 2015 for further discussion. Any changes will come with at least a term’s notice. No matter how school transport is provided in the future, it will be safe and reliable for your kids.
Kim Shannon is the Ministry of Education’s head of the education infrastructure service