For many schools, choosing whether to lease or buy a minibus is a simple decision. It's a choice that rarely gets questioned and, as a result, is unlikely to change. However, as every teacher knows, it's good to take a step back every once in a while and consider whether it's time for some fresh thinking.
Choosing to buy a vehicle outright means that it becomes an asset that the purchaser can use in any way they want, and for as long as they want to do so. As a result, it's an option that would appear to suit some organisations quite well, but do the pros outweigh the cons?
Purchasing a vehicle invariably means making a large upfront payment. While this might not necessarily be a problem, it's worth considering whether those funds could be put to better use elsewhere.
Then there's the question of buying power because, even if it looks as if you have negotiated a fantastic on-the-road price, it will invariably be much higher than that paid by a leasing company, which procures thousands of vehicles every year.
Unplanned repairs can quickly eat into tightly controlled budgets, with year-on-year price rises threatening to outstrip available funds. And there's always the risk that the vehicle depreciates in value more quickly than expected, leaving you stuck with a minibus that is now less economical, less environmentally friendly and even less safe than newly available models.
Contract hire is a long-term hire of a vehicle, where you pay a fixed monthly amount to drive it within agreed mileage parameters over a set period - this is usually between two and five years.
The amount paid is largely based on the difference between the cost of the vehicle, which, for the contract hire company will be at a lower price than is generally available, plus any customisations and service options, and the anticipated resale value at the end of the contract.
Contract hire avoids the need for a large upfront payment and the costs are fixed for the entire agreement. This can include maintenance, which not only protects you from unexpected bills but also freezes the charges at today's level, leaving you unaffected by things like rising labour rates, unexpected repairs or the cost of replacement tyres.
At the end of the contract, the vehicle is returned to the contract hire company, meaning that you have no worries of disposal or risk of residual value as you would if you owned the vehicle. This also leaves you free to take advantage of changes in technology and specification of a new vehicle on a new contract.
It's important to point out that, as the vehicle remains the property of the contract hire company, you'll need to abide by the contract terms and conditions including standards of care. Then, when it's time to hand the vehicle back it needs to be within mileage and in a condition that is comparable for its age and mileage to avoid any additional charges.
Choosing the right finance is important but getting the right vehicle for your pupils' needs must always come first. This means understanding all the possible customisations, such as conversions for wheelchair access and carrying specialist equipment, as well as evaluating how any variations to the standard specification are likely to affect the cost of financing the vehicle, the resale value and any relevant legislation.
There has been a lot of debate recently about the suitability of lightweight minibuses for schools and colleges, especially among providers who don't currently offer them. So, what's the issue?
Lightweight minibuses are made with the latest, often recycled, materials and can therefore offer fuel savings and a reduction in carbon footprint. Their reduced weight also means they can be driven by standard drivers, without the need to spend time and money acquiring a D1 licence.
In this case, a Minibus Driver Awareness Scheme (MiDAS) driver course is recommended to ensure the safety of everyone involved and it is also important to remember that without a D1 licence the vehicle must remain under 3.5 tonnes fully loaded (excluding any specialist equipment for disabled passengers).
Some have claimed that teachers require a D1 licence to drive a minibus, but this is simply not true. If it were, it would be illegal for the leasing company to supply them to organisations with no appropriately qualified drivers. In fact, even the critics admit that there is no actual case law to back up their claims.
Above all, it's about the suitability of the vehicle to your organisation's needs. If a lightweight minibus fits those needs, they are clearly worthy of careful consideration.
So, is it time to think again? Minibuses are essential for supporting learning outside the classroom, but only if they are a perfect fit for your needs, budget and circumstances. It's important to work with a partner that's independent of manufacturers, dealers and finance companies. One that understands the needs of students and teachers alike and is capable of working with you to ensure legislative compliance, while reducing risk, controlling cost and protecting the environment.
Lorraine Shaw heads up the School Minibus Company, which, as a leading supplier of minibuses to schools, colleges and universities, helps organisations reduce costs while improving safety and efficiency. For more information, visit schoolminibuscompany.co.uk