This is the recently published article in the Independent School Magazine

Chris Maynard, Managing Director of Castle Minibus gives his opinion on the DVSA’s growing interest in school minibuses and advises on what schools can do to be ready for a return to normal activities in 2021.

When asked what I thought this year would bring for schools where vehicles were concerned my first and biggest concern is the increasing focus on safety, legality, and compliance that I think will come with the expected return to normal now there are two vaccines on offer for COVID-19.

Keeping schools open and safe has been a hotly contested topic throughout 2020 and we are not out of the maelstrom yet, as I write this it has been announced that London primary schools will remain closed after the Christmas break.

Nothing has proved more important in 2020 than the safety of staff and pupils where COVID-19 is concerned, and it has rightly been the priority within the education sector. But, pre-COVID the DVSA’s spotlight was slowly, but definitely, turning to the safety and legal aspects of running minibuses. Increasing reports of vehicles being impounded, roadside minibus spot checks and the enquiry into abuses of the Section 19 Permit for commercial gain highlighted the worryingly low level of understanding schools have when it comes to operating their vehicles legally and safely.

There are some simple steps schools can take to put in place and evidence a minibus safety system

As the vaccines bring a return to normal and school trips and sporting fixtures become an important part of the school calendar again I strongly advise schools take some simple steps to stay as safe as possible and start to evidence their minibus safety system for the sake of their drivers and pupils, the DVSA, and their reputations.

  1. Minibuses are not just large cars. Drivers need education, practical training, and visual reminders of the size of the vehicles they are driving.

In December 2019 several children were injured when their school bus crashed into a railway bridge in Wessex, this was a professional driver on a well-known route. Non-professional drivers, like your teachers, need continual support and training. They are not driving cars. Schools need to ensure that their drivers have the right licence for the weight of the vehicle they are driving, and evidence that their drivers receive continuous training; MiDAS or similar every 4 years, regular risk assessments, licence and eyesight checks.

  1. Ensure your drivers understand the importance of regularly checking vehicles and these checks are recorded and managed.

It is easy to overlook or underestimate the importance of daily vehicle checks before the minibuses are used, especially if you have multiple drivers. Identification of defects or dangers and the management of these will protect the drivers, the passengers and prevent incidents and breakdowns on the road.

Castle Minibus understand that busy teachers may not want to check the vehicle before they set off with other things on their mind but not to do so leaves them and the school at risk. Evidence that problems were identified and remedied make up a huge part of a safety system. Download the free app and dashboard STRIDA that teachers can use to make these daily checks on their phones.

  1. Plan the maintenance of your vehicles

A Section 19 Permit requires 6-month planning of not only regular services and MOTs but also 10-week safety inspections. These safety inspections are required, regardless of mileage, so should still be completed if your minibus is not being used during COVID. Evidence of planning and records of services, inspections and repairs for vehicles is vital.

  1. Appoint someone who will take responsibility for minibus management

Running a minibus is more than just buying the vehicle and managing who has the keys and arranges services and MOTs. Those wishing to operate a minibus commercially under an Operator’s Licence must appoint a Transport Manager, under a Section 19 Permit there is no requirement for this professional position, but I recommend schools appoint a named person to understand and manage the minibuses, a Section 19 Permit does have legal requirements.  Certifying a member of staff by sending them on a course such as the Minibus Compliance Course will enable them to understand what is required under a Section 19 Permit and advise their school accordingly.

Now is the time, before a full return to normal activity, to look at the gaps in your minibus processes and safety systems and make the changes. When we were consulting with ROSPA on creating the Minibus Compliance Course their inspector commented: “the single biggest risk a school faces is taking children out on the public highway”. I want to encourage schools to use their minibuses and enjoy the opportunities they bring but to appreciate the risks and responsibilities involved and ensure they are doing everything they can to mitigate problems.

Increasing minibus safety can save you money.

Castle Minibus are the only minibus company that champions safety, and we work hard to integrate safety into all our products and save schools money in the process. We offer a free app to manage minibus checks for example. Evidencing a safety system can save you money in many ways; avoiding fines for worn tyres spotted by daily checks for example or untold savings on repairs to roofs, wing mirrors and side panels through driver education.

Our insurance partner broker also appreciates the value of educated minibus management. James Brown and Sons (Somerset) Ltd recognise that a Castle Minibus client is less likely to have an incident because of Castle Minibus’ high safety standards, especially if they have completed Castle’s online Minibus Compliance Course (MCC). James Brown and Sons Ltd have negotiated insurance rates that reflect the reduced risk that holders of the MCC represent.

We all have high hopes for 2021, schools, businesses, teachers, and pupils alike. I just hope that concern for safety within schools will finally permeate into minibus management and that schools will take the necessary safety steps before they are forced to – as the result of an incident or by the DVSA.

For more help and guidance on how you can set-up and evidence a safety system with products and services to support, and save money in the process please contact Castle Minibus on 01869 250744 www.castleminibus.co.uk or email enquiries@castleminibus.co.uk.

Evidencing a Minibus Safety System