It's green, it's social and with a pleasingly 'old-school' flavour, so no wonder many young Londoners take the official school bus. We investigate what this offers to children and their parents
Words Libby Norman
You may have seen the cluster of school-uniformed children in Sloane Square, or standing on together by Wandsworth Common or by Islington Town Hall. They are quite likely to be waiting for the school bus. Many independent schools in and around London are embracing a green and efficient way to deliver and return their pupils – and it ticks an awful lot of boxes for the school and its local community, as well as being an A-star winner for parents and pupils.
Taking the official bus (and often it’s a mini bus or coach) is a pleasingly ‘old-school’ approach. But for busy London children and parents, it’s also a godsend that works for all sorts of thoroughly modern reasons. For parents it’s a huge timesaver and stress-reducer – that battle through the traffic to deposit and retrieve can take up a fair chunk of the day. Then there is the green and eco-friendly angle; unless you are a meticulously organised car sharer or lucky enough to live close enough to walk to school, it can be discomforting to consider the pollution you are contributing to the London atmosphere when you do the school run ten times each week by car. And no one wants to add fresh material to that old-chestnut about parents and their ‘Chelsea tractors’.
The third brilliant thing about school buses is that they can considerably extend choice – both where you choose to live and where you send your child to school. For instance, the Dulwich schools (Dulwich College, Alleyn’s and James Allen’s Girls’ School) run a regular bus service that enables west-siders from as far afield as Bayswater, Kensington and Chelsea to travel safely and securely to the east using the Foundation Schools’ Coach Services.
But if there’s one clincher on the deal, it’s what travelling by school bus can offer for children. And this is where many parents may get a twinge of nostalgic pleasure remembering their own friendships forged and games played during that social bus journey before and after school.
“It broadens the demographic make-up of a school when it becomes accessible to many different areas of London”
Katharine Woodcock, headmistress of Sydenham High School, has no doubts of the all-round value of the minibus services they offer, with routes that run from areas such as Clapham, Dulwich, Camberwell, Bromley and Streatham. She says: “Our minibus service stemmed from a recognition that our pupils join us from an increasing range of locations across south London and that parents are not always able to transport their child to school.
“With the public transport links we enjoy, our bus service is a welcome additional option for all our parents to consider, regardless of their daughter’s age, when planning that route to school. Apart from the positive environmental impact of girls from further afield travelling in to school together, parents enjoy having this choice and the flexibility it offers. The girls love making friends in different year groups and, with a maximum of 14 girls on a minibus, there is a strong sense of camaraderie.”
It’s a similar story for North London Collegiate School, which runs what it believes to be among the capital’s most comprehensive school bus service up to its leafy campus in Edgware. With 22 coach routes, picking up and dropping off in destinations including Belsize Park, Islington and Kensington, it is an impressive logistical feat. “Around 600 girls travel here by bus, says North London Collegiate’s Sarah Chapper. “That’s almost half the girls who attend the school.”
The school has an official buddy scheme, known as ‘coach pals’, which ensures that the youngest travellers (from reception up) have someone to sit with them until they are confident enough to make their own friends and mix with classmates. The girls have even written an article about the games they play on the buses (Flip Monster being a favourite), the snack box fruit shared and the music videos sung-along-to on the journey. This entertainment value is something no parent can compete with, obviously, and has real benefits for the children’s social life.
“The younger children idolise their coach pals, who look after them and make sure their seatbelts are done up,” says Sarah Chapper. She adds that this ‘non formal’ opportunity to socialise at the beginning and end of the day is a great way to build up friendships and camaraderie. There is a further benefit for the school though. “It really broadens the demographic make-up because we are making our school accessible to so many different areas of London.”
The same is true of Forest School London in Snaresbrook, E17, which carries over 200 children – from Year 3 up – out to the leafy fringes of east London each and every day using a trusted local carrier. Routes take in Docklands, Islington, Crouch End and Highbury Corner, as well as the more local areas of Epping and Buckhurst Hill. Forest, like other independent schools, was very responsive to parental demand in designing its school bus service. This would suggest it is definitely worth enquiring about bus routes if you are considering schools outside your immediate locale.
“If there’s one clincher on the deal it’s what travelling by school bus offers for children – friendships forged and games played before and after school”
Schools in the lush green corners of London – and some excellent Home Counties schools also offer daily coach services – bring the obvious draw of space and a more rural environment. But you can also opt for a school closer to the heart of the capital that gives children the opportunity to ride in mini-bus comfort with their friends. St Nicholas Prep in South Kensington’s museum quarter offers a bespoke service for its pupils, carefully mapped out to minimise travel time for the children (no longer than 40 minutes). Routes are allocated with input from parents and St Nicholas really has designed a worry-free service. Chaperones accompany every bus to ensure children are safely strapped in, happy and entertained, and let the driver concentrate without worrying about mischief at the back of the bus.
As one parent of a pupil who uses the minibus puts it: “I enjoy the flexibility of being able to have my daughter picked up in the morning and I can collect her in the afternoon”. Like other London schools, St Nicholas believes this is a great help in widening options for parents. The bus service also brings a sense of independence to children, building confidence about social situations outside home and school. While London can seem a big and sometimes un-navigable place, the daily familiarity – with route, with bus-buddies – makes this independent journey a safe and soft introduction to the ‘grown up’ world of public transport. Perhaps the last word on this should go to a St Nicholas Prep bus-user: “I like to sit in the front and read my book,” says one happy Year 4 pupil.