School bus sign 3

Gov't refuses to fix overcrowding on school buses

Wanaka Primary School’s request for a “one seat per child” policy on school buses which travel on the open road has been flatly refused by the Ministry of Education.

Numerous primary school-aged children are being forced to stand on overcrowded school buses. Reader comments on previous Crux articles on this issue include a parent saying their child was bruised after falling while having to stand on a school bus.

Wanaka Primary School Board of Trustees chair, Andrew Howard, says this is a “clear risk” with buses travelling at up to 80kph on open roads. Queenstown Lakes District roads have additional dangers, he says, due to ice and the high number of overseas drivers who are often unfamiliar with New Zealand driving conditions.

Andrew Howard headshot 2

Wanaka Primary School Board of Trustees chair Andrew Howard: "Essentially kids are treated like cargo."

Howard - who’s been campaigning for a change to the ministry’s school bus policy for several months - was buoyed when four senior ministry officials visited Wanaka last month to discuss the school’s concerns. However, he’s told Crux the ministry has informed him it isn’t going to take the matter any further.

“They won’t change the policy unless there’s clear evidence that it’s dangerous which, as I put to them, means they have to see some children die before they’ll take action.

“I’m really disappointed they don’t even consider it worthy of a review. From a safety point of view, it’s just not right.”

Buses have Certificates of Loading which determine the weight they can carry. “The reason you could have 50 primary (school) students on a 36-seat bus is (because) they weigh less. No safety consideration. Essentially kids are treated like cargo,” Howard says.

There have been three serious bus crashes in New Zealand in less than a month and in two of the accidents, a person was killed.

Howard says the ministry has agreed to put an additional bus on the Luggate to Wanaka route but any relief will be temporary, he argues, as Luggate is a fast-growing township with many young families.

He says the ministry is completely out of touch with the school bus situation in the Wanaka area, with 30 percent more children using the service than the ministry is aware of.

“They don’t know how many children are on their buses and they’ve no way of monitoring. Really, it’s a bit of a shambles.”

Education Minister Chris Hipkins credit NZ Labour Party

Education Minister Chris Hipkins: Hasn't responded to the school's concerns. Image: NZ Labour Party

Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean has supported Wanaka Primary School in its campaign by writing to Education Minister Chris Hipkins, but the “invisible Minister” has not even replied, Howard says.

The school’s campaign will be “stepped up” now, Howard says, with discussions about forming a group to lobby the Government and organising a petition underway.

“We’re determined to see change. It seems a pretty obvious risk for our kids. Everyone I have talked to agrees it is a risk, except for the senior bureaucrats in Wellington which, considering they’re responsible, seems quite unreal really.”

The school also has Queenstown Lakes District Mayor Jim Boult’s support. “We don’t for one minute condone adults riding in motor cars without seatbelts, yet we are prepared to allow the most precious part of our community – our children – to stand up unrestrained on the open road. The situation does seem ludicrous,” he said in a letter to the ministry.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins and the Ministry of Education have been contacted by Crux for a response.

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