The Wheels on the Bus Go £££
by Pat Dodd Racher
Photo from Wiki-JET
Extra travel-to-school costs resulting from the closure of Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn, Llandovery, will be £460,000 a year, according to calculations made by Carmarthenshire County Council and released this week under the Freedom of Information Act.
If the calculation is correct, the costs of transporting pupils to the new Ysgol Bro Dinefwr 13 miles away in Ffairfach will be almost £2.2 million a year, compared with £1.73 million for transport to Pantycelyn and Tregib in Ffairfach, the two schools that are to be replaced.
Transport for pupils currently attending Pantycelyn has to be re-organised, and new routes created, to keep the theoretical maximum journey time to one hour each way.
Pupils will also lose the opportunity to do something more productive than sitting on a bus, but this enforced reduction in work or leisure time was not considered when the journey time analyses were made. A conventional way to value this time is to allocate a monetary value to it, but Carmarthenshire states that “No monetary value was attributed to pupils’ travelling time as part of this exercise”.
In ‘A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Rural Secondary School Consolidation: a Report to Gwynedd County Council’, James Foreman-Peck of the Welsh Institute for Research and Development, Cardiff Business School, followed Department of Transport guidelines for costing travel and gave a value to pupils’ extra travelling time. His figure was £5 an hour, based on the Department of Transport’s value of £4.46 per hour for ‘leisure travel’ in 2002, uprated for inflation. The current value, using the Retail Prices Index, would be £6.32 an hour.
If Carmarthenshire County Council had put a value on pupils’ wasted time, the outcome of the journey cost exercise would have been very different. Let’s suggest that the increase in daily travelling time averages 20 minutes twice a day. This was the figure used for Gwynedd, and is probably conservative in the case of Pantycelyn, where all the pupils who currently walk to school will face an additional 30 minutes or so each way, on a straightforward non-stop journey. Even at an extra 20 minutes each way, and limiting the number of pupils to 300 – there were 313 on roll when Estyn inspected the school in March 2011 – the cost is huge. Taking a school year as 188 days, each pupil’s additional wasted time is just over 125 hours a year. At £6.32 an hour, that is £790. Multiply by 300, and the result is £237,000 in lost time.
Anyone spending two hours a day on a bus for 188 days would waste 376 hours, equivalent to almost 63 six-hour school days – one third of the time they actually spend learning in school.
Adding just the conservatively-estimated additional cost of wasted time on the longer journey to Ffairfach to the £460,000 extra transport costs that the council has calculated, and the total soars to £697,000 a year in costs that would not be incurred if a secondary school campus were to be retained in Llandovery.
Many would say that children’s travel time does not have a cost, but pupils may not be able to do a part-time job, practice a skill such as piano, violin or guitar, look after pets, or even do homework. Time spent on a school bus is not ‘productive time’.
When all costs, incurred and imputed, are taken into account, school closures are much harder to justify. I hope that Ysgol Bro Dinefwr will be a great success, that no pupils will be on the road for more than two hours a day, that they will prefer it to their previous schools, but longer journeys to school, and the consequent higher emissions of noxious gases, are not exactly helpful in the battle against rapid climate change. Assuming an average extra distance per journey of 8 miles, that makes 16 miles a day for 188 days, 3,112 extra miles per pupil per year. Multiplying that by 300 pupils gives 933,600 person-miles, enough to go round the world 37.5 times!
Climate change and pollution issues are not going away. The USA’s move to fracked shale gas has freed up US coal for export, and some of it is being burned in UK power stations. Coal powered 40% of the UK’s electricity generation in 2012, the highest level since 1996, the Environment Agency revealed on November 11th. The increase in coal burning resulted in a 19% rise in damaging sulphur emissions, which return earthwards in ‘acid rain’. Therefore, even if the availability of fracked gas means that fuel price rises are lower than anticipated in the short run, the dangerous downsides are more air pollution and environmental damage.
Extra travel is of course only one aspect of the calculations underlying school reorganisation, but it does appear that in the case of Pantycelyn, the issue of children’s lost time was not given deep consideration. In addition, the pollution implications of longer road journeys, year after year into the future, were not prioritised. And just considering the money cost alone, the wheels on the bus truly go £££.
The issues go far beyond the county council, which was operating within the legal framework at the time. They are matters for national government, and urgent matters at that.
The author is grateful to Carmarthenshire County Council for the information released under the FOI Act.