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Improving school transport for vulnerable children through GIS mapping

Source: PSE Oct/ Nov 16

Tracy Jessop, assistant director of highways and transport at Norfolk County Council, explains how the local authority is using a geographic information system (GIS) to improve the school transport arrangements for almost 2,000 children with special needs, and help meet a cost-saving target of £500,000 this year.

Visualising information geographically to help make better decisions is not new in local government, with GIS mapping software already widespread in planning, development and customer service. But here at Norfolk, the information management service is always looking at additional areas of the organisation where GIS can make us more efficient. This was how the Special Educational Needs (SEN) transport project started life. 

The objective was to reduce the spend on transport commissioning while simultaneously maintaining – even improving – the transport service, to keep vulnerable children safe and ensure they can get to their most suitable, nearest school. 

Norfolk County Council currently spends around £10m transporting almost 2,000 children with special needs to school, using a range of different vehicles including mini buses, cars and taxis. We are a very rural county with around 900,000 people spread across 2,000 square miles, so travel costs will always be relatively high. But we knew that being able to examine the variables involved in the process would benefit from a GIS-led analysis and reveal where potential savings could be made. 

Previously, the SEN team used a manual approach, which involved inputting all the information into a system and running text-based reports on each child to consider their educational and transport needs, which took a lot of time. When looking at location factors paper maps were used, so the visualisation was very manual. This methodology also relied on the local knowledge that staff had gained over the years, so results could vary as the team changed. 

The innovative Schools Travel Application, created using Esri UK’s GIS software by our information management GIS team, completely modernised this process by combining all the data direct from various council systems and displaying it on one map. Seeing the data geographically makes it a lot easier to make decisions about the most suitable schools for students based on their educational needs, distance, travel cost and any existing journeys that could be shared. It was a significant eye-opener when the tool first went live, as staff could instantly see where cost savings could be achieved without impacting on the education being provided. 

Team members can now click on a school and see where every pupil is coming from, if they travel alone, the type of transport being used, the cost and whether there is a suitable educational establishment closer to their home. This method helps to understand the current travel arrangements and lets us make any changes faster than before. We can either make savings or understand that the current arrangements are indeed the best option. 

Efficiency savings achieved so far, since go-live in January 2016, mean we are hopeful that we can make a significant contribution to the cost-saving target of £500,000 for this year. Due to the success of the system so far, it will also soon be supporting the future strategic provision of SEN across Norfolk, such as informing where new schools should be built. 

Our priority is to protect vulnerable children and the new system is helping to identify the shortest journeys, best mode of transport and whether students can travel together. This in turn helps keep costs down. Modern GIS techniques are helping the organisation to take an evidence-based approach, which supports our decisions about where we need to allocate the transport budget, and also demonstrating that we are operating as leanly as possible.

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