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Kids face three hours on school bus as some new routes prove 'undrivable'

Conor and Alicia Culling, who could face very long bus journeys to their rural Tapawera Area School.

Changes to rural school bus routes mean young pupils will spend three hours a day on winding country roads, which a worried principal says will leave them tired and less able to learn.

Changes to the bus commute at the start of next year are expected to affect 23 schools around provincial New Zealand, after the Ministry of Education quietly changed the rules to allow buses to pick up kids as early as 7am.

Kelvin Woodley, principal of Tapawera Area School in Tasman District, says the Ministry of Education has proposed new routes for the free buses used by two-thirds of the school's 198 pupils.

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But a computer algorithm that's meant to find the optimal route based on students' home addresses has produced routes that are undriveable, says Woodley.

Three hours on a bus each day could be too much for some pupils.

Three hours on a bus each day could be too much for some pupils.

Until recently, ministry guidelines stated no pickup on the free school bus should be earlier than 7.30am, but Woodley said new guidelines allow timetables to start from 7am.

Tapawera school, born of a 1940s amalgamation of tiny country schools, takes students from Year 1 to Year 13. Woodley says the proposed new routes could add half an hour in each direction, leading to up to three hours' travelling a day.

"An extra hour a day for a five-year-old counts significantly. We need to consider the impact it has on their education."

Dairy farmer Sheryl Culling lives around 21km to the west of Tapawera school. Her daughter Alicia, 11, is in Year 6 and Conor, 9, is in Year 4.
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Currently the bus picks them up at 8am and drops them at 3.45pm. Culling said merging two routes could mean a 7am pickup. The additional distance would leave her children more tired, "and everyone knows what tired grumpy kids are like."

Federated Farmers board member Rick Powdrell said children in the country needed the same academic opportunities as those in the city.

"Rural kids have enough barriers in front of them as far as getting a like education to urban kids. Sitting on a school bus for a long period of time it doesn't augur well for a good learning day."

Kelvin Woodley said he was pushing back at the ministry's suggested route changes, planned for next year, "and we don't know how it will look in the end".

He said the new routes were generated by a program that plotted an optimal route based on pupils' home addresses, but the system seems flawed.

One route included a road that is considered unsafe because it is heavily used by logging and milk trucks. One new pickup point would have involved crossing a stream that has no bridge.

"You need to see it geographically before it makes sense."

Jerome Sheppard, head of the Ministry of Education infrastructure service, said the ministry always took advice from locally-based staff before finalising routes and would never include roads known to be unsafe.

He recognised students living in remote areas faced significant school journeys, but bus routes were designed to follow "the most efficient distance possible" between students' homes and schools.

"If there are any particular concerns on specific routes we would be happy to discuss those concerns," he said.

"We regularly review our routes and the funding we spend on direct-resourcing transport networks so that we are making the best possible use of taxpayer funding. We are committed to continuing to transport every eligible child to school, wherever they live."

Sheppard said Tapawera was one of 23 schools where the Ministry was planning changes early next year. The changes would affect about 40 bus routes.

"The vast majority of children – about 600,000 – get to school by either walking, cycling, public transport, or by being dropped off by car."

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