The Victorian legislative council economy and infrastructure committee will commence a parliamentary inquiry on Tuesday that will consider expanding school bus services in regional areas to the general public.
Committee chair Enver Erdogan said the inquiry would hear about whether school bus services could be used to enhance the mobility of others in the community who lived in regional and remote parts of the state. It will also consider the transport disadvantages of elderly and low income households living in regional Victoria.
“We recognise there is a significant transport disadvantage in some communities in regional Victoria. This is particularly the case amongst young people, the elderly and low-income households, who may not have access to a private vehicle,” Erdogan said.
“We know the school bus program has helped generations of regional Victorians to access a first-class education and we want to examine this issue carefully to ensure the program continues its success.”
The committee received a total of 100 submissions from stakeholders for the inquiry. One of them, from a concerned mother of three whose children travel to school on an ‘almost full’ bus from Newry to Sale, said the proposition of opening school buses to the public was impossible for child safety reasons.
“There is so much policy work done in schools and other workplaces regarding child safety — as a parent I have to have a working with children card to have any contact with the school children whatsoever – for example helping at sporting events or school excursions — and these instances are fully supervised by staff from the school,” Karen Humphris explained.
“On the school bus the children have no supervising teacher/adult apart from the bus driver who cannot by necessity observe the passengers as he/she must focus solely on the road.”
Humphris said the school bus service saved her up to two-hours driving from home to school to drop off and collect her children each day. But if adults from the general were allowed to also use the service, she said she would choose to stop letting her children use the service.
“[This] would not only cost my family and the environment more in diesel costs but I would also have to reduce my working hours in order to pick them up,” Humphris said.
“Other families may not have the option to elect not to use the school bus which would place their children in too vulnerable a position.”
While Humphris is open to the idea of adults utilising the school vehicles during the school day (when children were not using them) and with added cleaning of the buses, she added that she could not fathom the possibility some minors as young as five could be allowed to travel on a bus with adult strangers.
“Allowing any adults on the bus is much too high a risk (of abuse, including grooming, and exposure of the children to potentially inappropriate conversations and language) and this would totally undermine the child safety policies that schools work so hard to provide,” Humphris said.
Another mother, Fran Hall, said her children used school bus services and she would like to see that also available to the wider public.
“I support regional people being allowed to use regional school buses,” Hall said.
A different submission from Karen Gray simply stated: ‘Allow members of the public to use the service as well’.
Meanwhile Kim Carter, the principal of St Mary’s Primary School in Inglewood, welcomed the inquiry. In a brief two paragraph submission, Carter said that ever since the cancellation of a public school bus which operated from Bridgewater to Inglewood, her school rented a bus and employed a driver to ensure rural students could get to school.
“The significant cost associated with this service is becoming untenable and we are currently reviewing the service for the future,” Carter said.
“St Mary’s supports the inquiry into the use of school buses in rural and regional Victoria and hope that in the future the children of Inglewood will have greater access to public transportation.”
The Greater Shepparton City Council has also made a submission supporting the proposal to let members of the public use the same buses as its network of School Town Special buses. It was important to ensure that buses open to the public to be accessible according to the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, the council noted.
The committee plans to table its final report about the inquiry by the end of November.