Marking 100 years of school transport

Issue: Volume 103, Number 2

Posted: 22 February 2024
Reference #: 1HAfCj

On 1 April 2024, school transport services in Aotearoa New Zealand will celebrate a mighty milestone with its 100-year anniversary.

Lining up to catch New Zealand's first school buses at Piopio.

Lining up to catch New Zealand's first school buses at Piopio.

It was the morning of Mona Mills’s eighth birthday when the school bus rolled up to take her to school in rural South Waikato. It was the first day of April 1924, and Mona’s birthday excitement was doubled as her ride from Te Mapara to Piopio was a New Zealand first.

She was among 30 children ‘packed like sardines’ ¹ onto one of three identical Model T Fords converted for the purpose of being New Zealand’s first fleet of school buses.

In mid-1923, the Government’s education policy set in motion a process of consolidating existing sole-teacher, remote rural schools. These would be replaced by a ‘central, consolidated school, with good buildings, efficient staff, and modern equipment’. However, consolidating these schools would only be possible if the children could be transported to their new school.

A contract to transform three one-ton trucks into school buses was awarded to the Phoenix Motor Company of Petone in January 1924, and 3 months later, three refashioned Model T Fords rolled up to transport pupils from Arapae, Paemako and Te Mapara, to Piopio. Each bus cost the Government of the time £60 [about $7,240 today].

With the routes involving round trips of up to two-and-a-quarter hours, the inaugural New Zealand school bus drivers each spent half the day behind the wheel.

Without windows, the wooden-seated school buses had drop-down, side curtains. These were rolled up in fine weather or down in bad weather to shield passengers from rain or wind.

In later life, Mona recalled when it rained and those canvas curtains were rolled down, ‘the interior of the bus, although tolerably dry, was dark and claustrophobic’. ²

The start of shared travel by bus (rail had already been used to transport pupils in the Wellington area) meant the beginning of many new friendships among children who lived up to 20 miles away from each other. Up until then, children had been schooled alongside their siblings or close neighbours.

Marking history

Former principal of Piopio College, Brian Tegg, unearthed stories of the pioneering role his school had in the development of school transport and made moves to mark this piece of history, way ahead of this year’s centenary.

“I happened to be in Dunedin, where my car was being repaired in a garage, and I picked up a vintage car magazine,” he explains.

“In it, there was a man who restored Model T Fords, so I got in touch to ask him what we could do, to try to replicate one of these first school buses.”

When Brian saw a Model T Ford for sale, conveniently nearby where he was travelling to visit his son in Auckland, he saw an opportunity to realise this project dream.

He bought the 1923 truck and took it back to Piopio, with a suggestion to the school board chair that they replicate the original bus.

“We found a boatbuilder, which was surprising in inland Piopio, who had the skills needed to rebuild the chassis and transform it, according to the plans we had in the archives. It’s all authentic, constructed out of wood, just like the original.”

Brian, who was principal at Piopio College for 23 years before his retirement, spearheaded the project carried out by Piopio College Trust over 8 years ago.

He feels it is fitting that modern day rural school buses are also replicating the original design, returning to their roots in terms of engineering. Passenger compartments are once again being built onto commercial chassis here in New Zealand, instead of buses being imported, he says, likely a cheaper option.

The replica school bus is now on display on the main street of Piopio, with a plan to transport it to Hamilton Fieldays in July among other ideas for marking the 100-year milestone.

A trip to the capital for the 1920s Model T Ford may also be on the cards to celebrate the centenary, and the fact that the wheels on the bus have continued to go round and round Aotearoa ever since.

¹ - A History of School Buses, by John Addison, page 7.

² - Dominion, 15 August 1923, as quoted in  New Zealand Journal of History, 40, 1 (2006), ‘Boarding the School Bus’, by Logan Moss.

 Replica of New Zealand's first school bus which is on display in Piopio.

Replica of New Zealand's first school bus which is on display in Piopio.

Does your school or kura have a school bus story you wish to share?

We’d love to hear from school transport managers, school bus drivers and passengers, past and present, with interesting or amusing travel tales, photos or memorabilia as we look to mark this 100-year milestone in April this year.

Email with your stories.

A history of school buses

A brief summary of the history of school buses as written in ‘Boarding the school bus’ by Logan Moss, published in the New Zealand Journal of History, April 2006.

The first buses rolled down the driveway of the first consolidated school at Piopio in South Waikato on 1 April 1924.

The Education Act of 1877 made school attendance compulsory for all children living within two miles of a school. An amendment to the Education Act in 1886 made it compulsory for all children living within two miles of a railway station to attend school.

In December 1923, Cabinet granted the funds necessary to purchase, construct and maintain the first Piopio School buses and pay the drivers. The completed buses were delivered to the Department of Education in mid-March 1924.

For many of the children boarding the buses that April Fool’s day, travel by motor vehicle, if not completely unknown, was a novel experience.

By 1936, on average, 9,643 children were travelling to school by bus each day.

Today, over 100,000 students use Ministry of Education school transport each day.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:53 am, 22 February 2024

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