Ofentse Mokwena | The road back to school should include better scholar transport

Commuting to school by public transport outside of the scholar transport bus contracts, and Shova Kalula bicycles is quite common in cities and towns. At first, parents subscribe to a minibus taxi that transports a child to creche and primary school if it is not nearby or their work schedules don’t enable them to accompany their children.

Between primary school and high school, some children start to commute independently using scheduled buses or minibus taxis. These learners eventually grasp their way around neighbourhoods, city streets, bus terminals and taxi ranks. Our policies and practices sometimes miss these nuances, and the pandemic response in this decade might be the best time to inclusively fill the gap.

Commuting kids to adulthood

Riding a bicycle around the neighbourhood, and later to school brings to young people a degree of freedom, knowledge of space and an expansion of self with respect to where they live, learn and play. Such non-motorised commutes, walking and cycling, are initiated by group walks or cycling to schools nearby with supervision to build confidence and awareness between communities along the route.

They’re supported by road traffic knowledge through the ‘scholar patrols’ serving schools and protecting learners’ journeys. But where distances beyond 5km and rural area commutes are concerned, bicycles (with protective gear, and infrastructure), subscription minibuses, traditional local buses, and contracted scholar transport buses are necessary.

Over time, children expand their scope of movement, interact with learners from other schools and start experimenting with other bus and taxi routes. Like it or not, some grow to know number plates of their favourite vehicles and drivers for sound, culture and personalities embedded in the journeys. Others continue to travel by subscription minibus taxi, subsidised neighbourhood or contracted scholar buses right through into high school.

The few who commute with their parents or guardians in a car, are sometimes referred to as “bubble-wrapped”, because they are somewhat excluded from the social fabric of public transport. These services serve children almost throughout their toddler years, through high-school and prepare them for independent mobility and access in their post-school education efforts to become lifelong learners. As adults, such mobility and access exposure or habits, are engrained as either something to escape, or something worth revisiting in future. This choice depends on the quality of service offered to them as children, and options available as adults.

The role of government: transport or education

There are imperfections in the service offered to learners. Following the Constitutional Court cases in 2012, the South African Human Rights Commission determined that “the right to basic education is immediately realisable and is not subject to progressive realisation within available resources”.

Finding that failure or neglect to provide subsidised transport to and from schools, within the criteria of the Learner Transport Policy constitutes a violation of the basic right to education. This was in the Eastern Cape, after learner transport services were suspended in 2012/13 to Zweledinga Senior Secondary School in Queenstown.

It has become apparent that some provinces lag behind this issue to an extent that pressure and advocacy groups became pivotal in pursuing the implementation transport policy. Campaigning since 2014, Equal Education confronted the KwaZulu Natal Province’s inadequate learner mobility and access provisions. Their efforts untangled urgent scholar transport needs in 2015, advocated for a conditional grant through National Treasury, and urged for a Provincial Scholar Transport Policy in KZN (published this year).

Cities can also take action to navigate the regulation and implementation of scholar transport services by providing guidelines for operators and parents, especially as scholar transport operators, associations and entities emerge in an effort to coordinate the poorly regulated market. All spheres of government should be empowered to act without having to choose between transport or education departments. Mobility and access needs for learners are unique and advocacy groups, parents, schools, municipalities and operators should contribute to a joint multi-stakeholder authority suitably designed to navigate the delivery of scholar transport services.

Scholar transport operators: contracted, subscribed and preferred

Households still make the choice of which school they prefer their children should attend, and this may not be the nearest school to where they reside. For instance, KZN has acted toward moving learners to other schools in order to prevent them from having to cross rivers, and mitigate the cost of procuring ferry boats. In rural and peri-urban areas, bus contracts serve learners and the operators tender for contracts to transport specific learners, routes and schools—these activities are usually monitored manually. Subscription operators are seen in many types of vehicles, with some exclusively operating scholar transport services.

They sometimes form associations to represent their interests and codes of conduct in their jurisdiction. Preferred scholar transport operators, could include those who rank-and-file in the traditional taxi association and perform some scholar transport in the morning and afternoon. Given that parents choose which schools children go to, subscription and preferred operators have to make complex routing choices—this makes cooperation for mutual benefit helpful.

But, the month-to-month nature of the subscriptions expose operators to financial risks when households are in financial distress. It is much easier to discuss the tendered contract side of the scholar transport market, but this may come at the cost of excluding the equally important enterprises offering subscription and preferred scholar transport services.

An opportunity to act beyond the pandemic

When schools strike, or parents are short of money, or in the event of a crisis like this one, how will the survival of scholar transport operators be described? Not only are scholar transport associations concerned about their recognition in transport policy and practice; they are also concerned about how the lack of sufficient recognition could influence the implementation of Covid-19 regulations.

The inevitable call for government assistance to fill the gap for providing scholar transport to learners is already in the public discourse, because operators will have limited opportunity to realise their usual cashflows—in addition to the lack of income in the past few months.

However, given that young children are smaller and parents pay a certain fee subject to the operators pricing policy, overloading does happen (recall the 58 children in a taxi this year, or 48 last year?). This is exacerbated by the complications around the number of passengers a child is equivalent to depending on their age. The South African Road Federation reported that there may be a need to re-look at current legislation because children aged 0-3 are not a passengers, two children age 3-6 are one passenger, three children aged 6-13 are two passengers.

It is likely that if learners return to school in a phased manner, more vehicles would be needed if social distance seating is applied. This could inflate costs for contracts and complicate the situation for scholar transport associations and operators (needing more vehicles and drivers).

Even if we look to the period after Covid-19, hygiene, social distancing and other practices at schools will influence the nature of scholar transport services. Schools may make considerable arrangements to assess operators’ compliance; learners conduct along journeys; and accessibility around precincts.

Parents could be incentivised to enrol children at the nearest school to enhance accessibility without having to debate quality and preference per se.

The scholar transport industry is ripe for digitisation, this could enhance and optimise scholar mobility experiences, safety protocols (i.e. learner documentation) , service information, compliance and school and parental oversight. Although the 2001 policy recommendation for a national learner transport conference still stands, provinces, cities, parents, learners, advocacy and associations should be empowered and form part of the response to the pandemic and the propel the much needed reforms in scholar transport policy and practice.

Ofentse Mokwena is a transport economist, lecturer, researcher and podcast host.

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