The enduring legacy of school buses

Issue: Volume 103, Number 6

Posted: 15 May 2024
Reference #: 1HAgXN

Marking 100 years since the first school bus service arrived at their grounds, a community event at Piopio College on 5 April shed light on the profound impact and timeless significance school buses have had on our rural communities.

All the images in this article showcase the celebration event at Piopio College on 5 April.

All the images in this article showcase the celebration event at Piopio College on 5 April.

Past and present students of Piopio College joined with students from Piopio Primary, Āria Primary and the local community to hear from guest speakers, see past bus models and sing a lively rendition of The Wheels on the Bus – all in celebration of the significant local and national milestone; 100 years of school buses in Aotearoa.

On 1 April 1924 the country’s very first school bus service arrived in Piopio, bringing students from around the district to a central school.

One hundred years on, school buses still play an important role in breaking down barriers to education for rural students, according to the current principal of Piopio College, Rakesh Govind.

“We can’t survive without the school transport system,” says Rakesh. “It would be such a hurdle and a barrier for our parents to be trying to get their children daily to school.”

With some students travelling up to an hour and a half each way, Rakesh is adamant that due to the remote and rural nature of their homes, school buses remain vital for rural students having access to education. 

Having only been in the role at Piopio College for two years, he says that the significance of the school buses has blown him away. 

“A lot of our students would struggle to attend school if it wasn’t for our rural school buses. Coming from Auckland I had never thought about it like that,” says Rakesh. 


Unique rural history

Rakesh says one of the hits from the event was having a replica of one of the first buses (as well as a 1970s Bedford bus and a modern bus) on display, with some students getting the chance to jump on board the replica bus for a ride. 

“The replica bus is a big component in the history of our kura.” 

When the first rural schools in the Piopio area were consolidated in 1924, a school bus service was implemented – otherwise children living in remote spots would find it hard to get themselves to class. 

Three one-tonne Model-T Ford trucks were converted into buses, which would pick up students from Arapae, Paemako and Te Mapara and deliver them to Piopio. 

Over the next one hundred years, the Piopio school bus service would go through many transformations, and some teachers would even find themselves jumping behind the wheel to drive the students to and from school. 

One of the event speakers, Brian Tegg was one such teacher. Brian, who was principal from 1979 to 2002, says that this was just part of the job. 

“It was one of the things that was required of you if you taught in a rural school – if you could drive a bus, you did,” he says. 

Wheels on the bus

Brian says he enjoyed speaking to the Piopio students and school community at the celebratory event, and one of his highlights was initiating an enthusiastic rendition of the beloved children’s classic, Wheels on the Bus. 

“Much of the audience was school students, so listening to how the replica bus was made isn’t the most interesting thing they want to hear,” laughs Brian. 

“I asked them, ‘how many of you know this song?’ 
A forest of hands went up, so we all sang it together with all the actions – it was fabulous.”

Brian points to an Evening Post story printed on 12 April 1924 which laid out the glowing reception at the time to the new mode of transport. 

“Advantage from a general-health point of view was demonstrated during the storm and flood conditions last Friday. All the children arrived at the school, dry and in time for the classes. In the case of those from Paemako, 36 out of 38 were present, whereas, under similar weather conditions probably less than half could have trudged to the local school,” the article reads.


Fond memories

Another of the event’s guest speakers, Jean Toms, spoke of her memories of catching the school bus to school in 1935 when she was five years old, and says she remembers the exciting journey.

“Where I lived, there were lots of small farms and we all milked cows in the 1930s. I added it up and there must have been about 40 children in total. Too many for the small bus, so we got put on a bigger Bedford bus which was a bit more modern.” 

As her family didn’t own a vehicle until 1946, Jean says the novelty of riding the school bus was incredibly exciting at the time. 

“We didn’t even have a vehicle. It was about three kilometres from my house to the school, and my other option for getting there was riding my pony, which I did once I was old enough!”

Jean says the bus was usually full, and the bus driver would know to wait for them if they were late. 

“He knew we were out milking and busy working in the mornings.” 

Piopio Primary School student Luka also shared his grandmother’s memories of the school bus, and compared to his own experience.

“The first run was on 1 April 1924 … With the bus’s canvas sides flapping in the breeze and its transverse leaf-spring suspension magnifying every bump in the road.

“The buses today are very clean and not as old as the 1924 first bus … the buses we have today aren’t as cool as the old bus but at least we have buses.”

Marcus Freke, the Ministry of Education's director of education in Waikato acknowledges the momentous occasion.   

Marcus Freke, the Ministry of Education's director of education in Waikato acknowledges the momentous occasion.  

School transport assistance in 2024

One hundred years on from that first school bus fleet in Aotearoa New Zealand, the Ministry of Education still plays an important part in making education accessible for not only our rural tamariki, but also for other tamariki that face barriers to education.

Over 100,000 ākonga across the motu receive some form of school transport assistance from the Ministry.

Daily school buses: The Ministry provides a daily school bus service for ākonga where distance or lack of public transport presents a barrier for them attending their closest school.

Specialised School Transport Assistance (SESTA): SESTA is a specialised transport service that assists children and young people who have safety or mobility needs that prevent them from travelling independently to school. Ākonga are transported by either a van or car and, depending on their needs, this can be in a shared or solo service.

Conveyance allowances: Not all ākonga live near a school bus route or are able to have a SESTA vehicle service. In these cases, the Ministry pay their whānau a conveyance allowance. A conveyance allowance is a contribution to the cost of transporting eligible ākonga to school or their nearest bus route.

Bulk transport funding: The Ministry runs two bulk funding transport programmes – Direct Resourcing and Māori-medium Schools. Schools and kura enrolled in these programmes arrange their own school transport assistance for their eligible students.

Technology Classes buses: Where schools do not have technology classes at their site, the Ministry provides buses to transport Year 7 and 8 students to their nearest technology centre. 

Did you know?

Public Transport Authorities such as Auckland Transport and regional councils, also provide school bus services. These operate mainly in urban areas such as cities and large towns.

More information on School Transport Assistance:
School transport – Ministry of Education(external link)

A celebration of past and present school transport.

A celebration of past and present school transport.

By the numbers (as at 1 January 2024)

  • 51,920: daily school bus students*
  • 2,595: daily school bus conveyance allowance students
  • 24,637: directly Resourced schools (bulk funded) daily school bus students
  • 8,661: Māori-medium Schools (bulk funded) daily school bus ākonga
  • 30,592: Year 7 and 8 Technology Class bus students
  • 316: Year 7 and 8 Technology Class conveyance allowance students
  • 5,402: Specialised School Transport Assistance vehicle students*
  • 1,221: Specialised School Transport Assistance conveyance allowance students
  • $248 million: yearly spend by Ministry of Education on school transport assistance

* A small number of students also receive a conveyance allowance and may be double counted

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 2:03 pm, 15 May 2024

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