It’s easy to get lost in the detail and forget what the bus actually does for people

Townsend’s Bus Travel owner Tony Townsend has helped transport the students since the program began

Randall Johnstonexplores the theme of how bus operators assist us in each stage of our lives, in the first of a three part series

Regional areas are places where one must travel, in some cases long distances, just to access vital community services.

In these places community leaders must come up with ways to make it easier for locals to get an education, so they can create a better life for themselves.

For young people in regional areas, getting a broad literacy and numeracy type education is never an issue, but once students come of age and start to look at specialised trades, the tyranny of distance becomes a factor.

This is a problem for young people face in regional areas all around Australia, but all it took was a bunch of forward-thinking teachers and adaptable local bus operator in South Australia’s (SA) Riverlands district to break down this barrier.

The Industry Participation Program (IPP) is a partnership between four high schools in the district to provide single Vocational Educational Training (VET) curriculum options rather than competing, which is a rather unique arrangement.

Townsend’s Bus Travel owner Tony Townsend says it’s a pleasure to be providing transport for students engaged in the program who are keen to start learning the skills they will need in their trade or future occupation of choice.

"A lot of the kids around here want to go on to do trades. They’re not heading towards university, so it’s great for them," he says.

"I think it’s great that this type of opportunity is offered to rural kids, and it means they don’t have to move away from the area to get the training they need."

According to Townsend, if it wasn’t for this program, many young people would likely have to move to the city and away from their friends and family to access training, assuming this is even an option for them.

"Anything that keeps young people in rural towns, learning what they want to learn, and getting work as a result is good," he says.

"I think the concept has been well received by the kids, it definitely gives them a head start in the field they want to go into."

While it is a challenge in terms of scheduling and vehicle use, Townsend has found a way to make it work without compromising his other jobs.

"We have four high schools within 80 kilometres of each other that all offer different types of courses, which obviously requires transport and that’s where we come in," he says.

"For a regional operator, that’s nothing, 80 kilometres is something we do every day - it’s just a matter of getting all the schedules right."

He is  staggered by the way it has grown and the enthusiasm with which the students speak of their VET studies.

"There’s about 300 kids doing it now, and five years ago when it all starter there were only 50, so it’s getting pretty big," Townsend says.

"In the first year was just the one bus with about 50 students, now we have can have three or more buses moving students around.

"We had to do a bit of rescheduling last year to make it work because of the numbers and how it’s grown, but we’ve been able to accommodate it without too much trouble."

Townsend has a long term relationship with the schools, so his operation was the natural choice when the program first started back in 2009.

"We are main service provider, we were the logical go-to choice I guess you could say, but can’t take anything for granted," he says.

A law change for South Australian (SA) P-Platers that came into effect in 2013, restricted the number of passengers a P-Plater can carry to two, and came as a response to the high number of crashes occurring involving young drivers in the state.

As a result the reliance of young people in bus services increased and so did Townsend’s transport commitment to the schools involved in the program.

South Australia (SA) Department of Education and Child Development student pathways manager Michael Pater says the IPP program makes a real difference to the lives of young people in regional areas by helping them figure out where their natural talents lie, what they enjoy and what career they want to pursue after school.

"Not everyone wants to go to university, we know that and that’s to be encouraged," he says.

"It’s important that schools embrace these programs, because these courses provide real career pathways."

VET courses are embraced even more in SA, because unlike in other states, they count towards a completion of student’s South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE).

The four regional schools involved in this particular IPP program are Glossop, Loxton and Waikerie High.

These are mostly within half an hour’s drive of each other, so it makes sense for them to share teaching resources and facilities in this way.

Students travel to and attend a particular school for a full day each Thursday, their destination depending on at which school their chosen subject is taught.

The IPP program has been especially successful in regional SA schools, which tend to have an average of about 500 students.

"A lot of the state schools in others states are much bigger, so they don’t always need to collaborate or pool their resources in this way," Pater says.

"Having said that, this same model could work really well for regional schools right across Australia, at least for schools in towns that are not too far from each other.

"It could be a challenge in places like Victoria, where the regional towns are usually more like an hour away from each other."

While the IPP is unique to SA, similar solutions have been rolled out in other states with varying degrees of success.

"There are examples of other collaborations around," Pater says.

"It’s a bit of a tricky one to promote to schools because they are going to lose students, which is a concern for some because it affects their funding."

SA Governments Work Ready scheme does fund some of the 22 VET subjects that are collectively on offer at these four schools, such as aged care, engineering and a number of other courses.

For those that aren’t funded, each school decides their own contribution to course fees, based on what they can afford.

Funding issues aside, the idea was seen as very different – perhaps even a little radical at the time.

"It was also a leap of faith from the parents and convincing them it was necessary for their kids to go here there and everywhere," Pater says.

"It’s all about the kids having a career strategy, and giving them real life skills or at least thinking about what they are good at and what they would like to do after school.

"It is a way of getting entry level training while still at school.

"Aged Carestudents have got into tertiary nursing at Flinders University Rural and Remote Clinical school, and are starting their Bachelor of Nursing this year, which is fantastic."

While the offering started out small it has grown to include more than 20 different vocational subjects including automotive engineering, community services, information technology, Certificate III in Fitness and Certificate III in Animal Studies.

The latest course to be added is the Certificate III in Production Engineering, which teaches a range of practical manufacturing skills and was introduces two years ago.

IT has become very popular recently and modern skills, such as being able to create a website for a business, are now in high demand.

The IPP program has been a huge success, with participation growing from 50 in 2009 to around 300 last year.

"In some schools more than half of all enrolled students are doing VET, which is great to see.

"We are constantly engaged with local leaders in different industries, to see what else we can offer.

"Essentially we ask the students what they would like to study that could lead to employment locally, so we’re trying to get a winemaking course up at the moment.

"It’s just a matter of getting the wine industry on board."

The initial idea for the IPP come about and was developed championed by a team of passionate local educators, the idea quickly developed a life of its own and from there, the SA Department of Education and Child Development helped make it a reality.

Most importantly the students are getting a lot out of it, and the Riverlands region has been home to the last three Australian VET students of the year.

A law change in 2013 saw SA P platers restricted to a maximum of two passengers, which made car-pooling a less effective option for students wanting to make their own way to attend their VET course.

Also their schools are fully subsidising bus transport to attend their VET courses, so it makes little sense for them to use private transport unless they happen to live nearby.

"We think the bus is a safer and more reliable service anyway, it also helps the students get into a routine so they operate to a timetable," Pater says.

"It’s effectively a hub and spoke method with the interchange point at Gloucester High’s senior campus in Berry.

"So all buses arrive there at 9am every Thursday and students then catch the appropriate bus depending on where they need to go."

Although it’s been what Peter describes as ‘a tightrope of collaboration’, he is proud to have helped facilitate such an innovative and important program for young people, and is confident that this model could and should be adopted interstate.

Bus and Coach Association SA (BusSA) executive director Lauran Huefner says the IPP program and Townsends contribution shows just how much of a difference bus operators can make to the lives of the youth in all regional communities and that the importance of this contribution cannot be overstated.

"It is particularly important in country and regional areas, where resources are scarce, to find efficiencies and effective utilization of budgets," he says.

"In our view, the main message from the success of the Industry Participation Program is that collaboration between interested stakeholders means that more can be done without huge additional investment.

"IPP is a real winner for the students, the schools and the local community – underpinned by moving people about.

"We’d like to see more of this across the state, and we have a focus on integrating regional services so the benefits of mobility – like the children in the IPP experience – can be spread across regional communities. 

"This type of activity has genuine regional development impact."

While a lack of educational and employment opportunities remain a challenge for young people and their families in regional communities all around Australia, with a bit of forward planning and lateral thinking solutions are achievable.

Besides bus operators make perfect partners for those who dare to dream big, after all they are used to improving the lives of people in the community every day.

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