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Parents of children who use school transport are being encouraged by The Highland Council to encourage their children to use the seatbelts that the council are insisting are installed on all school buses. Although it is not a legal requirement, the Council has made it a condition that every child travelling on school transport has a seatbelt.

In renewing more than 600 school transport contracts, the Council has responded to concerns of parents by significantly tightening up on safety and improving the comfort levels of those using school transport. The Council will also be closely monitoring the standard of provision to ensure that contractors comply with all the aspects of the contract specification and will be implementing a penalty system where contractors fail to deliver an acceptable service.

The new contracts were introduced on Monday 7 January.  Bruce Robertson, Director of Education Culture and Sport, said that before embarking on the five-yearly renewal of school transport contracts the Council had sought the comments of parents, teachers and school boards. He said: "There was resounding support for increased safety and comfort on the buses and we have tried to achieve this in renewing contracts. Already most buses are fully seat belted and all will be fully compliant within six months.

Having taken this important step, it is important that children wear their belts. Head Teachers have been asked to brief pupils on the need to wear belts and it is really important that they get similar messages from parents."  At the same time, the Council has contained the increase in cost to less than 2%, at a time when prices could have been expected to rise by 11-14%, through the integration of the retendering process with public service contracts administered by the Roads and Transport Service, as well as keen pricing by operators.

The total cost of the school transport contracts is 7,426,000. This includes 1,315,000 to cover the costs of pupils who travel on public transport on service routes, rather than dedicated school transport.  Councillor Andy Anderson, Chairman of The Highland Councils Education Culture and Sport Committee, said: "This is good news all round. The safety of pupils is of paramount importance and, to this end, we have enhanced the specification of the transport used and this is backed up by a comprehensive set of penalty clauses designed to ensure compliance.

"We have been able to contain the increase in costs to 2%, which is a real bonus given that national cost trends in school transport exercises indicated the possibility of an increase ranging between 11-14%. For the first time we tendered for public service and school transport contracts together and the integrated approach has paid rich dividends. Great credit is due to the Education and Roads and Transport teams for working jointly on all aspects of the exercise."

Through its Roads and Transport Service, the Council also spends 1,780,000 per year on providing support to public service contracts.