Mr Leon Perera asked the Minister for Education (a) whether the Ministry can provide an update on the adequacy of the supply of school bus services; (b) whether an update on the same can be provided specifically for Special Education schools; and (c) what is the average increase in school bus fares seen in 2022.
The Minister of State for Education (Ms Gan Siow Huang) (for the Minister for Education): The Ministry of Education (MOE) has been monitoring the provision of school bus services. The demand for school bus services has been relatively stable, as we continue to have 98% of our Primary 1 students able to obtain a place either in a primary school of their choice or within two kilometres of their residence.
However, based on our engagement with some school bus service providers, they have provided feedback on a shortage of bus drivers, with the post-COVID-19 reopening of the economy being a factor. This was also compounded by the rising fuel prices which have affected the viability of some of these providers.
Despite these challenges, most providers have continued providing school bus services, but have to raise their fares to reflect both rising costs and the need for the industry to attract and retain sufficient school bus drivers. These are issues which MOE is engaging the relevant stakeholders to address.
For most MOE schools, the bus fares have gone up by up to 10% in 2023 compared to 2022, while special education (SPED) schools have generally seen a higher increase due to the smaller pool of bus operators who are able to meet their more complex needs.
To better ensure affordability of transport costs to school for lower-income students, MOE has enhanced the school bus subsidy from 60% of monthly school bus fares to 65% since January 2023. This will reduce the amount paid by the families of these needy students and help mitigate the increase in school bus fares. Beyond that, in situations where the family needs more help, the schools are able to provide more financial assistance to cover the school bus fares.
Likewise, for SPED schools, eligible students taking school bus services can apply for the Enabling Transport Subsidy (ETS), administered by SG Enable, which was increased from 1 July 2022 to help defray the cost of school bus fares. Beyond that, the SPED schools are able to provide further discretionary support to needy students who may need additional help with their school bus fares.
Both the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and MOE will continue to closely monitor the school bus fare situation, and if need be, step up financial support for needy students who have to travel by school bus.
Mr Speaker: Mr Perera.
Mr Leon Perera (Aljunied): I thank the Minister of State for her answer. Just two supplementary questions. My understanding of the school bus operator population is that – and I will stand corrected if this is not not borne out by the facts – but my understanding is that it is an ageing population and many of these operators are set up as sole proprietorships. They may employ a very small number of people, may drive the buses themselves. Over time, we can expect that there will be exits from the industry.
Is the Ministry looking at how to address that? Because as the population ages, there could be certain solutions that we need to look at. For example, facilitating these micro businesses to to sell their business to a more organised operator – I just mentioned that as one possibility.
My second supplementary question is on the school bus services for SPED schools. I wanted to ask what sort of training is made available to the bus operators for SPED schools, given the complexity that is involved in that, which is different from just operating a bus for mainstream schools. Sometimes, there could be certain types of skills that they need to have in order to do their job effectively. I have encountered one issue with one of my constituents in the Serangoon ward of the Aljunied Group Representative Constituency (GRC). So, I am wondering what sort of training is given to these bus operators.
Ms Gan Siow Huang: I thank the Member for the two supplementary questions. Indeed, the school bus industry is quite a fragmented one, with many sole proprietors. We at MOE ourselves are also beginning to learn about this industry and we are in discussion with other agencies. We are starting to engage the school bus operators to see what kind of help we can provide to facilitate this industry to stay viable in the long term and to support the needs of our students for school bus services.
As to the training, MOE does not provide training to the school bus operators of SPED schools. Instead, what our schools normally do is specify in the contracts what kind of skills and services we require the school bus operators to be equipped with, either for the drivers or the minders in the buses.
Ministry of Education
22 March 2023