Children are having to wait for hours to be picked up for school because of a “change in government policy” that stopped transport operators from using small vans, they claim.

Providers of the free school transport service spoke to Times of Malta after parents complained about early pick-up and late drop-off times for their children.

Operators said they were told just before the new school year that using ‘M1 category’ eight-seater vans breached their government contract. They argue that the change to using larger vans means drivers must collect children from multiple villages, making the trip longer.

“The system is cruel to children,” said one driver. “Why are we waking small children up so early to get them out by 6am? It’s not like they’re going hunting.”

The free transport service is offered to students who attend State, Church and independent schools. Various service providers told Times of Malta that five years into the service agreement - which was extended by two years during COVID - they were no longer allowed to use eight-seaters.

Those who spoke to Times of Malta said this was the first time that they had heard of the restriction. They added that the government was aware that smaller vans were being used because, every year, service providers must submit all documentation linked to the vehicles, including logbooks.

There were also two different fares paid by the government – one for smaller and one for larger vans.

Representatives of the service providers said they met the education minister and the prime minister earlier this year over the matter. They claimed they were promised compensation for not being able to use their smaller vans but that they still haven’t received anything. 

Some parents who don’t need to go to work have decided to stop using the service and just drive their children to school themselves

A driver who invested in small vans when the government first signed the contract said he could not afford to buy larger ones for the two years left on the agreement.

Another driver called the sudden change a “racket that has sent small-van owners into depression”, with several resorting to trying to sell their vehicles on Facebook’s Marketplace.

“Some parents who don’t need to go to work have decided to stop using the service and just drive their children to school themselves, rather than waking them up early. This, of course, increases traffic.”

An operator who has been in the business for 30 years and was faced with the “unplanned expense” of a large, second-hand van, said he calculates children wait for him to pick them up at least 20 minutes earlier than before. They arrive at school at least 20 minutes later than they used to.

“It just doesn’t make sense at all. Smaller vans are much easier to manoeuvre in village cores and are less likely to hold traffic. And while deploying two smaller vans instead of one large one means children spend less time in traffic, it would also cost the government less money.”

According to figures provided to Times of Malta by drivers, one trip in a small van used to cost around €35 while a trip by a large van costs over €80.

Times of Malta has asked the government why it no longer allowed service providers to use smaller vans and whether the van owners will be receiving some sort of compensation.

Separate questions on the changes to pick-up and drop-off conditions that had been sent to the education ministry on September 27 have also remained unanswered.

Meanwhile, more parents have come forward to share their frustration with the change.

One reader whose son attends school between 7.55am and 1.15pm said he is being picked up at 6.10am and dropped off at 2.45pm.

“We are talking about a five-year-old who is waking up before dawn and spending hours going around in a van,” she said.

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