Eleven-year-old Ben Vodden took his own life as a result of what his school-bus driver described as “banter”. Ben’s father Paul, the author of a new report calling for certified driver training, talked to Justine Brooks.
I remember quite clearly my own daily dread of the bus trip to school. Make sure you sit in the right place where no one notices you. Not too far back, that’s where the big kids sit. Not next to someone who’s going to take the piss with their friends in the seat behind. I escaped unscathed but many other kids spend years negotiating the minefield that is the school bus, pelted with insults and injury, in situations that are unsupervised and unmonitored.
For Paul and Caroline Vodden’s son Ben, the experience was so unbearable that it led to him taking his own life in 2006. A happy child from a happy home, 11-year-old Ben was targeted by bullies on a daily basis from the moment he started secondary school. Not only this, but when he sat closer to the only adult on the bus, the driver, he too joined in, calling Ben names. Something the bus driver later described as “banter”. The continued, daily verbal abuse caused Ben to hang himself with his own shoelaces.
“It is the norm for one untrained adult, who is engaged in the activity of driving a bus, to be put in sole charge of a group of 50 or so young people for an hour or even more.”
In the wake of such a horrific tragedy, Paul Vodden has campaigned tirelessly for changes to be made to school bus journeys. This softly spoken man, whose grandfather was the Bishop of Hull, just wants to make sure that others do not continue to suffer as Ben did.
With funding from The Diana Award, a charity set up to empower young people using a peer-led approach, Vodden has commissioned research that has led to two reports, the second of which, The Vodden Report, has just been published.
Vodden has met with school bus drivers, and his report reveals just how unprepared they often are to carry out the job that they’re required to do. Vodden says: “It is the norm for one untrained adult, who is engaged in the activity of driving a bus, to be put in sole charge of a group of 50 or so young people for an hour or even more.”
The report reveals some uncomfortable statistics: 67.4 per cent of bus drivers have witnessed bullying on the bus while 78 per cent of them have never received any sort of advice on how to deal with instances of bullying.
Despite his sustained campaigning, Vodden reveals that his wishlist – that systems be put in place to make sure that bullying is dealt with safely and effectively on school buses, that bus drivers receive proper, certificated training with refreshers, that a second, trained adult is placed on school buses, that the efficacy of CCTV is assessed – has still not become Local Education Authority (LEA) policy on a national scale.
How can this be? It has a lot to do with what Vodden describes as an issue that “falls between two stools”: once children leave school premises they are no longer the responsibility of the school. Plus, one suspects that funding has something to do with it. “Bus companies that run school runs are often fairly small and the services are cost-driven,” says Vodden. Which means that nothing ever changes.
The charity BUSK has taken up the cause and is working on developing a training course for school run bus drivers. This has not yet been implemented and shockingly, there are still no existing training programmes for drivers.
“The report reveals some uncomfortable statistics: 67.4 per cent of bus drivers have witnessed bullying on the bus while 78 per cent of them have never received any sort of advice on how to deal with instances of bullying.”
Vodden’s cause was strongly taken up by his former MP, Annette Brook. He also took his 2012 report to Liz Truss, when she was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for education and childcare in the Department for Education. He put his most recent report into the hands of the Department’s Nick Gibb MP in 2014, yet reforms are still yet to materialise.
Vodden remains incredibly positive. “It’s not that all school buses are like that,” he says, “some schools have put wonderful schemes in place.” However, he rightly believes that these initiatives should be taken up by LEAs and until they are he will keep campaigning. In the meantime he urges parents and schools to be vigilant – “Young people often don’t complain about it and drivers just keep their heads down and drive.”
It’s clearly time for a change.2008 Views
Justine lives in beautiful north Leeds with her 12-year-old daughter and a lurcher called Lionel. She runs a PR and marketing agency and is writing a novel.