Change is a-coming and there has been lots going on behind the scenes when it comes to the already confusing subject of minibus licences. We share some insight into the changes that are starting to happen within the school transport and minibus sector and what likely challenges that might bring for schools in 2018.

Charitable status

In our view the days of driving and operating a minibus pretty much unchallenged are coming to an end. For the past 20 years or so there has been little or no regulation in the distribution and use of Section 19 or 22 Permits but 2017 saw a seismic gear change in interest from local authorities and the government in how organisations claiming to be in the ‘charitable’ sector can and do exploit their voluntary status and bid for commercial contracts which affects minibus regulation.

Ford Euro 6 Minibus

Independent schools that hold charitable status and operate their minibuses using ‘volunteer’ staff should be prepared for changes to both the scrutiny in having a Section 19 Permit and the definition of the driver being a `volunteer`. In October 2017 a government select committee looked at the grievances of commercial operators on community transport use of Section 19 and 22 Permits. This could potentially lead to a change in the way permits are granted and monitored, to ensure vehicles are being regularly checked and the voluntary status is not being exploited.

Vehicle safety checks

Under a Section 19 Permit, from the 28th of November 2017, the DVSA now recommends that thorough vehicle safety checks need to be carried out by a qualified person every 10 weeks and the reports kept up to date by the school. The DVSA and traffic police can carry out spot checks to see evidence of the vehicle’s paperwork for these safety checks and that pre-use walk rounds are up to date as well.

Vehicle Safety Checks

On December 11th an ITV News investigation revealed hundreds of ‘serious’ defects in school buses and some even without insurance and up to date MOTs. This is another indication that school transport remains under scrutiny and will continue to attract attention where legality and safety are concerned.

Volunteer driver definition

While the spotlight is also on ‘volunteer’ drivers under the current Section 19 Permit, a clear definition of who is a volunteer is likely. If it is concluded that a person cannot be driving on behalf of their employer, it will confirm that school staff are not volunteers and will therefore require an unrestricted D1 licence and possibly a CPC certificate. This has recently been the case in Northern Ireland where the education authority issued guidance in November 2017 that all teachers/school staff from January 1st 2018 need a full D1 licence and CPC certificate.

‘If this criterion cannot be met, any journey undertaken by staff will not be considered legal and may leave the driver and the employer facing prosecution and penalties’ (This is what is standard with the other 27 members of the EU currently).

Schools in NI have declared this turn of events could be a disaster, and UK independent schools with charitable status may well be dreading a clear definition of ‘volunteer’ but there are many schools that have already realised the safety implications of not having properly trained minibus drivers. Similarly, schools and local authorities who have sought legal advice have been advised that teachers driving minibuses as a consequence of their employment, who are responsible for the pupils in their care and are therefore subject to disciplinary procedures cannot be classed as volunteers.

2018 is likely to bring substantial changes as to how minibuses are operated, both in the interest paid to the distribution and compliance of Section 19 Permits within the Education sector, and the clear definition of volunteer that will clarify whether teachers can be included in this category or not. Interestingly, the DVSA mentioned to the Parliamentary select committee that they were not currently allowed to carry out spot checks on school premises. We await the Department of Transport report with interest.

Certificate To Pass Minibus Driving Course

In 2017 we saw an increasing number of independent schools planning ahead and arranging for the correct training to be in place to meet the changes in the coming year. Castle Minibus will be working hard in 2018 to help schools stay up to date and provide the expertise and practical help needed to stay legal and compliant.

Although budgets will need to be prioritised to get staff trained, the safety of vehicles, staff and children will be greatly improved and the risk to both employee and employer of prosecution for illegal driving, albeit unintentionally, will be eradicated.