How to Avoid 10 Mistakes

Vital information all school heads should know,

to ensure you obtain best value, quality and service for your schools transport.

By Philip Hitchen. Managing Director, Belle Vue (Manchester) Ltd


Who would take a school trip in today’s ‘compensation culture society? Embarking further than the school gates with groups of young people is an increasingly awesome prospect given the alarm caused by highly publicised disasters and the explosion of paperwork that accompanies such ventures. Despite this, thousands of school trips take place across the region every year. Some trips are safe and successful, some are not too bad, but some can be disastrous. These are the trips you need to avoid.

When requesting services to cover your school transport requirements schools normally obtain three competitive prices from three different suppliers. The thinking behind this is that surely the most competitive price is deemed as obtaining ‘best value.’ In actual fact in this day and age where we are living in ‘compensation culture times’ nothing could be further from the truth. You get what you pay for in life and when you are running a school budget on a shoe string after the effects of the credit crunch and government budget cuts schools have to think smarter.

Obtaining the cheapest price to carry out your service could be detrimental to a disaster, resulting in stranded passengers by the road side, an injury or God forbid, a fatality. They do say you get what you pay for.

Carrying passengers, especially children is a serious business and you as the head teacher need to be diligent and professional in obtaining ‘best value.’ So you can receive value for money for your school, but also more importantly ensure your trips are safe. Protection of children is the name of the game and as a transport operator for the past 20 years I can tell you legislation is upping the safety game every year, but unfortunately not all transport operators have followed suit yet. You might not have heard about some of them because they have not been found out yet. (If you read the industries trade magazines you would hear about them. There are articles in there every week.) But believe me, our industry hears of the disasters some schools face after dealing with cowboy operators. This report is a quick guide to ensure you take a few vital steps to ensure you obtain value for money, quality safe vehicles and drivers who have been safety screened with a crime reference agency and professionally trained to ensure your students experience a fun packed excursion.

Read on to discover the vital mistakes most schools make only to discover too late the steps they should have taken to prevent such a disaster.

Mistake #1. Failing to do your research and choosing a professional transport partner.

When choosing a reliable transport provider and assessing coach and bus operators don’t just assess them on price ‘when you need to travel and take a trip!’ Do your research in August or early September at the start of each school term. This can be reviewed every three years once you have something in place. Delegate someone in the school clerical team to obtain the information you need. By doing research on vital clues to the different operators performance you can obtain a critique of the companies and start to hone in on a ‘preferred supplier.’ Having a preferred supplier who becomes a transport partner is a win for you and a win for them. For starters you can receive discounted prices based on ALL of your transport requirements across the year and the supplier can concentrate on the service as they have secured the business for the year. Secondly, once you do the research on the operator’s license, insurance, maintenance records, quality policy, H&S policy, environmental policy and service performance you have done your homework once and for all and can rest assured it is covered for the year. The thought of not doing that and hoping all the paperwork is in place is incompetent and leaving you and your school wide open.

Speak (in person face to face) with three operators and assess their policies on driver recruitment and training, safety and comfort features of the vehicles, booking processes, terms and conditions, insurance claims record, quality control, risk assessments, spirit of service, transport back up systems, after sales monitoring systems and above all customer testimonials. Quality, conscientious operators have all the above in abundance and will give you un-quantified references that you can personally write or speak to.

Mistake #2 Not planning ahead for the year, and saving time and money in the process.

Once you have chosen your preferred supplier consider booking the service in advance to save yourself time and money. If you have a transport list of journeys for the year a preferred supplier can price it and offer you a discounted structure. Operators can save you money when they receive all of your business. They do this by two ways:

  1. Is to cut out dead mileage. Instead of quoting your jobs leaving from their headquarters to your school and then the same on the way home again after the school trip, they can integrate it with other transport they have on their system and save mileage which results in less fuel being used on the job and time for the driver.
  2. Secondly, all vehicles have a standing vehicle cost for the job, which includes finance capital, insurance, maintenance and depreciation. Say an average Standing Vehicle Cost (SVC) was £100, if that vehicle only carries out your trip that day you are copping for £100 plus the other costs. Whereas, if the operator can mix it in with another job, or two other jobs (depending on the nature of the trip, e.g. if it was local) your SVC could be only £50 or £33!  The same applies to the driver too. If he is only doing one job, all the wages for the day are going on your job, whereas on 2 or 3 jobs you could half or third your costs.

When you add the direct costs of fuel on to the plan, and wages, then overhead and profit, you could save as much as 5%-20% of the average transport cost.

This is the best way to ‘obtain best value.’

The other key criteria also to consider is, if one of your team make a mistake, such as forgetting to plan a trip in at short notice and you phone your preferred supplier, they will drop everything and sort it. If you don’t have a preferred supplier you’re on your own and a certain times of the year you might not be able to source a vehicle.

Mistake #3. Not checking the ‘right stuff’ to guarantee safety – your local transport authority.

School trip safety is at the top of the list of concerns for trip organisers and parents in today’s litigious society. This high regard for health and safety issues does not have to stifle the adventurous spirit of school trips and visits though. Instead it should create an environment which promotes challenge by choice in safe surroundings. Check before booking that your chosen transport provider is registered with all relevant organisations and authorities such as TfGM, (Transport for Greater Manchester). The CPT (Confederation of Passenger Transport) and the DVSA (Driver Vehicle Standards Agency) formerly VOSA (Vehicle Operator Service Agency). By checking if they are registered with TfGM you can guarantee that they are a vetted school transport supplier.

Transport for Greater Manchester or Your Local Authority

TfGM (Transport for Greater Manchester) and/or (your local authority) have vetted and qualified all suppliers who provide transport to schools on a contract home to school basis. They have a scoring system based on performance and reliability and road worthiness which includes annual fleet inspections. TfGM supply a supplier quality scoring system based on their contract performance. Operators have to meet a certain standard or they are relegated from the supplier chain for non-conformance. Ask for a reference on their scoring or get a report. Getting a good report of an operator who operates with high service levels week in week out, ensures you are on to a winning partnership.

Mistake #4 Not checking your chosen supplier is a member of a Governing Body like the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) or the Road Haulage Association. (RHA).

The CPT (Confederation of Passenger Transport) is an organisation who represent coach and bus operators at government level. The CPT promotes compliance amongst operators and they have operational and technical departments to assist operators in meeting up to date regulations and standards also benefiting from newest innovations. The CPT also ensure emergency back-up procedures in the event of a road traffic accident for all their members including road side emergencies including assistance in press and public relations handling. All good quality coach and bus operators are members of this association. Ensure your supplier is. All best practice within the coach and bus industry comes through the CPT and operators pay an annual fee to join. They also attend bi monthly meetings, to view speakers and trainers, educating operators in best and latest safety innovations. The CPT also has a network of suppliers to ensure every member operates above compliance levels. Not being a member speaks volumes about an operator’s commitment to keeping up to date.

Mistake # 5 Not checking the maintenance records of an operators fleet. (DVSA). 

The Driver Vehicle Standards Agency have records on file of all transport operators maintenance records. This includes MOT pass rate on their vehicle fleet, road side inspections and a general scoring system that gives quality information on the road worthiness of the coach/bus operator in question. The score rates from Red, Amber and Green. Red is DANGEROUS, Amber leaves a lot to be desired and Green is good to go. There are varying standards of Green though. Scoring is from 00,0 and 1 to 10. Green 00, is the best score you can receive, 1 is low and Red 10 is high. Quality operators are in the green with a score as low as possible. This is the best way to check on the road worthiness of your chosen operator and is a true reflection of a transport supplier’s maintenance management. Ask your transport provider to give you an up to date report for your own assessment and check that the date is current rather than two years ago. Also assess the MOT pass rate. The industry standard is 81%. By doing this, this will give you an up to date accurate state of play of the fleet maintenance and is one of the most important things you can do to rely on a safe transport system for your school. If you do anything at all – DO THIS!

Mistake #6 – Not Checking Out Breakdown Back Up Systems

Although vehicles are well maintained, even a brand new one can break down. In the event of an unfortunate break down or vehicle failure beyond the operator’s control, enquire about back up procedures or systems. When you are stranded at the side of the motorway what’s the plan? Quality operators have spare vehicles laid aside for such an event, or can scramble another vehicle from their large fleet, that happens to be the nearest in the area or, they have an army of quality approved suppliers that they can call upon. If it is a minor technical situation operators may have their own ‘rapid response’ maintenance team and/or established relations with a ‘breakdown call out team’ that they can call upon for rapid assistance. This simple point can result in you being back on the road in minutes rather than hours. Most competent operators can evacuate a road side incident within 60 minutes, half of this time if local. Ensure you know the plan and agree in writing before committing. (This is something most schools don’t even think about – until it happens, then it is too late.)

Mistake #7 – Ask Transport Operators About Their Recruitment & Training Policy

Cowboy Operators have no strategy on recruitment and training. They throw the keys at potential new staff who have a nice face or smile, such is their desperation to put a driver behind the wheel and get the coach or bus earning income. Good quality drivers are in short demand in the industry. In reality, not checking driver’s career history can be detrimental to the trip. We’ve all heard the stories about TV celebrities who are being brought to task years down the line because of some incompetent ‘people managing’ in the past. You cannot afford to let that happen with your students.

Quality operators have a recruitment policy in place that is normally backed up with a professional organization such as a law firm, insurance firm or a HR specialist. They assess application forms thoroughly (sometimes along with a personality test) to ensure how skilled and enthusiastic the applicant is for the job.

They carry out a thorough interview, sometimes two, and the second incorporates a driving test. Then two reference checks are carried out along with a CRB (Criminal Records Bureau Disclosure) check.

After this qualifying process an induction and training program takes place to set the new applicant into the company’s operating systems. You are then assured that you are being served by a high performing quality professional bus/coach driver who operates to a company’s operations manual.

Driver Training.

All quality operators carry out driver training. It is now European law to ensure ‘periodic training’ is carried out every five years based on 35 hours training to CPC standard (Certificate of Professional Competence – the highest standard form of training in the industry). However, the quality of the training and more to the point, the drivers acceptance and application of the knowledge varies. There is a big difference between ‘having to’ and ‘wanting to’ when it comes to training driver teams. Look for operators that train ‘in-house’ and have a ‘high customer service based training program.’ Ask for a video or samples of the training programmes if there is one available.

Mistake #8 – Not Checking Operators Insurance Claims Records

Poor transport operators have very high claims records with no management of the policy which could result in very serious personal injury one day. If you want to make a booking or a regular agreement to do business with a transport operator ask to see their insurance claims record.

This is a list of all the incidents the operator has had within a twelve month period. You can assess the severity of the incidents. (Has anyone been seriously injured or are the claims all minor incidents with a slight escalation of compensation culture claims?)

Quality operators manage their staff and operations very tightly and will be happy to disclose this if requested. This is also an act of confidence to highlight how low the claims record is. This is also a reflection of how safe they operate their business. Coach passengers are valuable cargo and a low claims record is a safe bet in anyone’s book. As a rule of thumb Insurance brokers would expect to pay on average 60% claims of the cost of the Insurance Premium. Quality operators will have claims records of less than 40% with top draw operators below 20%. If a driver has had an incident through his own negligence the operator will have him quarantined by placing him on a retraining assessment course with a qualified instructor and the driver will have to pass a qualifying score to maintain his position. Any small accidents that drivers have can be assessed, monitored, and designed into the future training program so the driving mistakes can be eradicated. Not assessing driving incidents results in greater calamities. To ignore the danger is to deserve the disaster. Human error can happen on any day. But the better the Insurance Claims record is managed and retrained the better. Don’t let their next disaster happen on your trip.

Mistake #9 – Not checking the operator has good operational policies in place.

Some operators have no control over the standard and upkeep of their operating systems, their fleet of vehicles and the environment they operate within. Good maintenance starts with good cleanliness. Quality operators will have a vigorous system in place that is double or treble checked on a daily basis with a paperwork management system in place. At the higher end of the market they will be a member of the ‘Coach Marque Scheme’ which is the Industries Quality Scheme for a quality auditing system. At the higher end of the spectrum operators will be certified to ISO9001, which is a European standard for quality, recognised right across the EU.

These days transport authorities are requesting policy numbers for Quality, H&S, and Environment policies with their certification credentials. Certified policies are what you are looking for as outside auditors have to visit the business every year, sometimes more than once to ensure they are operating to the standard.

Some operators today can go to great lengths to provide high standards.  They are regularly audited to ensure at any point in time the business can be assessed and ensure they are up to operating at the highest levels 24/7/365. Audits include ISO standards for Quality, H&S and Environment policies. Maintenance audits from the DVSA and Lloyd Morgan group and transport audits from industry leading lawyers.  Ensure you recruit an operator with high standards and systems to maintain them.

Mistake #10 Not Asking To See Customer Testimonials

Ask to see previous customer testimonials. There’s nothing like seeing testimonials of a good service received from recent customers to put your mind at rest and give you confidence that your business has been placed in the right hands. If customers receive exceptional service they will record it with the supplier, such was their gratitude. Quality operators receive testimonials by the bucket load.

Enquire if there is an Aftersales Service in place. Companies who review client satisfaction reports can make continuous improvements to the business resulting in a continuous and never ending improving service.

Also ask to see client lists. Successful companies who offer great value and service normally have a client list with recognized names on there as long as your arm. If you are going to do business with a preferred supplier you need to know what the present clients think and see if they are getting value.