Features: February 21st, 2017

Paul Attenborough describes the problems councils face annually in inviting tenders for school transport. He offers suggestions for tackling the issue with rapid route planning.

According to the Department of Transport, 29% of 11-16 year olds use some form of bus transport when travelling to school. With more than 8.5 million pupils attending 24,000 schools in England that equates to up to 2.5 million school passengers a day. The provision of safe, reliable and efficient school transport poses a significant challenge for Local Authorities, especially when finances are constrained. Councils are under further pressure to minimise the number of vehicles needed, reduce CO2 emissions and minimise journey times for passengers.

Local Authorities carry out scheduling for school transport on an annual basis. In terms of operational challenges, one of the key barriers to overcome, in addition to budget restrictions, is the narrow time window between completion of the school admissions process and the requirement to invite tenders for transport provision.

In our experience, teams tend to take an average of six weeks to complete this process and, depending on the size of the authority, can often require input from a number of different teams. Given the strict parameters of government legislation, it is vital that the transport scheduling process is conducted as efficiently as possible. This ensures that passengers’ travel requirements are met and the most cost-effective network of services is arranged within the short time available. Otherwise the outcome can be less than favourable.

Critically, failure to plan effectively in this six week window can result in under-utilised routes and buses, or expensive taxi charges for Special Educational Needs (SEN) pupils. There is also a very real risk that transport teams – in struggling to meet deadlines – will be forced to resort to last-minute ‘panic outsourcing’ of scheduling requirements; thereby eliminating their ability to efficiently optimise scheduling, inviting spiralling costs from bus and taxi operators.

If a school transport plan is not fully in place by the start of the summer – ready to be enacted when September arrives – not only will pupils be presented with a commuting nightmare, Local Authorities may also be exposed to a barrage of enquiries and complaints from parents. Extra administrative staff and man-hours will be required to handle these interactions, placing a further drain on already limited resources.

So, how can Local Authorities improve their strategies to deliver a transport system for schools that is on brief, on budget and within that all-important time period?

Forward planning

As with all strict deadlines, time-management is a crucial part of the transport scheduling process. Admissions for new starters are finalised around May or June, but there is no need to wait that long to begin the scheduling process. For students that are simply moving up a year, data can be processed as early as April, during what is commonly known as “the roll-over process”. Council transport teams should therefore use this as an opportunity to get a ‘head start’ on planning routes and assessing fleet availability. This will free up time to concentrate on new starters before the end of June, after which teams will be left with a ‘contingency period’ to address any last minute changes or issues.

Cross department co-ordination

It is important that Local Authorities recognise the need for better cross department co-ordination as they seek to make the most of their window of opportunity. Both the transport and education teams play a critical role in ensuring the transport scheduling process runs smoothly. If information isn’t shared accurately and in a timely manner, there is a greater risk that Local Authorities will encounter the problems outlined above. Should the education department, for example, be slow to supply the necessary pupil data to transport teams, further pressure will be added to the process. Likewise, if transport teams fall behind in managing this data, educational teams, as well as schools and parents, can be left in limbo.

Where feasible, Local Authorities should look to streamline communications to ensure data is supplied as quickly as possible. For example, where social workers are involved, self-service online portals provide an opportunity for a more streamlined process when it comes to submitting booking requests for SEN pupils. This will help to standardise the input and improve accuracy of data, reduce the need for phone calls and face-to-face meetings, and generally improve the quality of information being exchanged; thus saving time, money and other key resources.

Embracing technology

Many transport teams have a tendency to adopt a manual approach to scheduling, sometimes even physically mapping out the most appropriate routes rather than utilising scheduling software. For the most part, this is due to historic methods and the belief that an in-depth knowledge of a particular area is key to successful scheduling. Arguably though, large amounts of route planning can actually be carried out without specialist knowledge, making the adoption of technology a practical decision.

This doesn’t invalidate expert input; it is of course vital that Local Authorities utilise such expertise while also using technology to help cope with the pressures of tight deadlines and a limited window of opportunity. Ultimately, using automated solutions to plan bus routes should not be seen as a threat, but rather as a tool that enables specialist knowledge to be allocated more effectively: helping teams to improve passenger experience in the most challenging scenarios.

Automated scheduling software uses a combination of algorithms and parameters which reflect council policy to identify potential vehicle routes, including pick-up and set-down times. This allows for the completion, on average, of up to 80% of the required route-planning for pupils attending mainstream schools. With the bulk of the work completed, staff have time to focus their expertise on arranging specialist transport for those requiring more complex planning, for example due to being in a rural location or needing assistive equipment. Another benefit of incorporating technology into the scheduling process is the ability of software to run various alternative “what-if” scenarios, thus delivering a more tested hypothesis to transport and education teams within the limited timeframe available.

Managed Services

There is a further way to streamline this process: the management of route scheduling software itself can be outsourced. With this approach, education and transport teams retain control over final decisions regarding transport contracts, but are able to completely focus their attentions on the elements of the planning process that require their direct input. With school transport data managed on their behalf, multiple scenarios tested and recommended route information provided, the burden on stretched departments is greatly reduced. Local Authorities who follow this approach are still able to maintain a level of control over operations, thereby avoiding the costly implications of a last minute outsource of the entire planning process.


When faced with the challenge of planning school transport, the main focus for Local Authorities is the optimisation of schedules and processes, and the overall improvement of working practices. With little margin for error, both in terms of time and resources, transport and education teams must ensure efficiency in every area of the scheduling process. Success within a narrow timeframe depends on the team’s ability to engage in forward-planning and encourage better collaboration, both internally and with external stakeholders.

Crucially, Local Authorities need to recognise that technology is an enabler rather than a threat, and should consider outsourcing the management of such technology in order to achieve the best possible balance between external support and overall control of the school bus scheduling project. With the right approach, teams are better placed to avoid the Doomsday scenarios associated with poor planning, and reduce the pressure on already stretched budgets. Instead, they will be able to deliver school transport services that effectively meet passengers’ travel requirements, while creating operational and financial efficiencies.

Paul Attenborough is with Trapeze Group