Access to arts and culture from a very young age improves educational attainment. However transport costs are a huge barrier to schools providing cultural and creative opportunities off site. Culture Bus piloted the use of existing yellow school buses to reduce the costs of cultural visits and provide more inspirational learning opportunities for children and young people.

The challenge

A wealth of evidence1 tells us that access to arts and culture from a very young age improves educational attainment as well as improving young peoples’ understanding of their place in the world, pride in where they live, and confidence to access culture later in life.

Current growth in Creative Industries (including advertising, architecture, the arts and antiques market, crafts, design, designer fashion, film, interactive leisure software, music, performing arts, publishing, software, television and radio) has been dubbed the 4th Industrial Revolution2. We need to make sure children in Greater Manchester can be part of this.

The Creative Industries are worth an estimated £111bn per year to the UK3

Greater Manchester has poor levels of cultural engagement at 60.13% of the general population, compared to a national average of 60.27%4. Oldham, Rochdale and Wigan are more than 5% below the national average for cultural engagement, in contrast to 68.37% in Greater London, 66.61% in the West Midlands City Region and 62.23% in Liverpool City Region.

‘Cultural and creative learning is a vital part of any education. It gives children the confidence and capability that they will need in a world and economy that depends on the skills that it provides. It is a basic block in building the future of the UK as a whole.’

Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of TATE

When promoting cultural visits and activities to schools across the city region, the primary barrier to attendance is transport costs, which cannot be met due to squeezed school budgets with little inbuilt flexibility.

This barrier becomes even more acute in areas where parents and carers have limited financial resource and schools are therefore unwilling to pass on costs to families. Schools further away from cultural clusters such as Manchester City Centre are further disadvantaged due to distance and resulting higher transport costs. 

This means that school children, particularly in areas of deprivation or relative geographic isolation, are not getting access to the rich cultural offer across Greater Manchester and have few or no opportunities to explore the world beyond their local area. 

Culture Bus proposed using the yellow school bus fleet to make transport to cultural venues easier and cheaper. These buses are leased by Transport for Greater Manchester to private operators primarily for journeys to and from school. This means that during a large period of the day, from around 9.30am to 2.30pm, the vehicles are unused.

‘Exclusion from shared cultural knowledge is a major barrier to equal opportunity.’

E.D. Hirsch

Our approach

When looking for a pilot area to test this approach, Wigan was selected because:

  • 20% of children live in poverty and only 8% of children study a creative GCSE subject 
  • Wigan has a less well developed cultural infrastructure than some other districts in Greater Manchester, necessitating further travel to experience a theatre show, for example
  • Wigan has a greater reliance on buses than other forms of public transports, as the Metrolink does not currently extend to the district.

The pilot was inspired by the Cultuurbus programme, delivered by Mocca in Amsterdam.

Free bus transport for 22 schools

c.900 Wigan children experienced cultural venues and activities across Greater Manchester and beyond

Greater Manchester Combined Authority collaborated with Curious Minds and Transport for Greater Manchester to pilot Culture Bus and explore cost and demand for such an approach. This would then inform any recommendations to roll the scheme out across Greater Manchester.

Key objectives of the Culture Bus pilot were to:

  • Test out whether Yellow Buses can be used to provide reduced cost transport for school trips during the day
  • Develop an efficient booking process and application criteria for schools
  • Work with cultural organisations in Wigan (and other providers) to help promote their offer to local schools
  • Work with schools to explore in more detail the barriers for undertaking cultural trips, and the kind of trips that are of interest
  • Work with bus operators to explore different options for reducing the cost of trips, initially testing a ‘packaged’ approach
  • Work with Transport for Greater Manchester legal and procurement teams to test the feasibility of different approaches for long term delivery
  • Support the delivery of Wigan’s new cultural manifesto, and its first year priority for children, young people and future artists.

A set of eligibility criteria was developed and defined eligible visits as being to arts, cultural and heritage venues, or activities delivered by professional artists or practitioners in a non-cultural venue. Relevant art forms included: visual arts, music, literature, heritage, dance, theatre, craft, photography, film, design, museums and combined arts. Venues had to be no more than 60 minutes away by bus to fit into the time window when transport was available.

Bus operators were procured, the profile of the scheme was raised with cultural organisations and the opportunity was advertised to schools.

In order to test the process and focus on developing relationships with bus operators, the full cost of the initial offer to schools was refunded to the operator, with a view to developing a partially subsidised offer in a second phase.

’It’s about extending that learning, which is a massive part of the education process.’


What we achieved

The pilot enabled over 900 children and young people to access creative and cultural opportunities with their school. Visits were made to venues ranging from Stockport Air Raid Shelter, People’s History Museum and Quarry Bank Mill to Museum of Liverpool, Bolton Albert Hall Theatre and the Whitworth Art Gallery. An early test of the concept also offered a packaged visit to the Fire Within Festival in Wigan. 

Teachers found that cultural trips were a great way of bringing the curriculum to life, inspiring students and helping them to explore future career pathways. 

Providing opportunities for children and young people to experience a wide range of cultural venues and activities helped to challenge perceptions that culture ‘is not for them’ and was a catalyst for further family engagement; for example, pupils reported telling their families about excursions they had made and repeating their visit with them.

As a result of the pilot, a small working group of culture and education representatives in Wigan was formed to develop two potential business models:

Model 1: Work with operators to agree a flat rate for cultural visits

This model proposes working with 1-2 operators in each borough and leverage discount through ‘guarantees’ of work. Rate(s) and operators are agreed through a tendering process. A central Culture Bus funding pot is used to increase discount to schools for the pilot. Schools are given a discount code and code of conduct.

Schools pay a set amount per trip direct to the operator, who then invoices the project team to claim a top-up subsidy. 


  • Little admin required short and long term
  • A flat rate keeps things simple for all involved – it is easy to communicate the offer to schools
  • Easy to roll out across the whole city region.


  • Calculating a flat rate is complex and may not appeal to operators
  • Potential to confuse operators and schools regarding what is and what is not eligible for discounted travel
  • Operators are required to reduce their prices based on a guarantee of work, but there is no absolute guarantee of take up from schools. It may take time to raise the profile of the scheme and build a pipeline of trips.

Model 2: Develop a ‘packaged’ offer for bus operators to market directly

A call out is sent to cultural organisations in the pilot area to promote opportunities for schools. Schools are then invited to apply using a set of criteria and a booking process developed through the previous pilot. The model proposes working with 1-2 operators in each borough and a central Culture Bus funding pot is used to increase discounts to schools.


  • Builds on the previous pilot
  • Creates a process of regular communication with schools – helping to maintain the profile of arts and culture and developing a wider appreciation of the offer across the city region
  • Creates a process of regular communication with cultural organisations – assisting them with the development of their schools’ marketing and communications
  • This approach requires a closer and more regular working relationship with bus operators, helping to keep them engaged with the programme and giving the project team greater control.


  • This is an admin-heavy approach, particularly if rolled out across the city region, and could be complex to manage
  • Calculating the level of subsidy for each individual trip is more resource-heavy
  • Advertising a discounted offer to schools would be difficult before a tendering process with operators was complete 
  • Transport for Greater Manchester procurement and conditions would need to be carefully considered and may not be a good fit for this way of working.

5Students from low-income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree.

‘I’m going to go home and tell everyone about it.’


What we learned

The pilot produced a number of useful learning points including:

Eligibility criteriaThe pilot tested a definition of culture as part of the eligibility criteria for visits. This definition needs further work and ideally would remain a broad and inclusive one, to encourage schools to access a diverse range of opportunities across the city region. 

Change of circumstances – A clear and fair cancellation policy is needed, particularly within the context of post-pandemic education.

Timing of cultural education programmes Bus operators have a window of opportunity between school runs in which to use yellow buses. Standard times for cultural workshops are often 10:00-11:30 and 1-2:30pm but in Tameside (where a related scheme has been running for three years) venues have changed afternoon workshops to 12:15-1:45 to allow for transport restrictions. If Culture Bus were to be rolled out more widely, then venues would need to consider making similar alterations. 

Profile of cultural opportunities Many schools reported struggling to find cultural opportunities in their local area to meet their needs. This is often a marketing issue rather than lack of provision. There is an opportunity to raise the profile of the cultural education offer across Greater Manchester. If schools do hire a coach or bus, the pilot showed that they are more likely to travel 1 hour+ out of their local area, rather than looking at what is closer to home. This demonstrates a need to help schools understand the range of what is on offer on their doorstep and to feel confident in the quality of this local provision.

Communication is key The pilot found that communication was important for building a sustainable and effective cultural transport service. For example:

  • Building strong relationships with the bus operators in order to achieve good discounts and to help keep them engaged
  • Exploring a variety of ways to promote the cultural offer to schools and working with cultural partners to ensure that their offer is relevant and aligned with school needs
  • Having clear lines of direct communication with schools, with messages being well-managed, clear, direct and well-timed
  • Engaging potential funders and other stakeholders to promote, grow and sustain the offer
  • Celebrating the positive impact of Culture Bus and advocating the value of cultural trips to schools.

A dedicated Communications Plan is needed for any future scheme.

Sustainable approaches Encouraging greater use of public transport is key to city region planning re: sustainable transport infrastructure, reducing congestion and improving air quality. Helping children and young people to develop their confidence in using buses can contribute to developing more sustainable habits for the future.

An evaluation of the next stage of the project should include a consideration of:

  • increases in numbers of pupils accessing arts and cultural activity as part of the school day and with family and friends
  • the diversity of the cultural offer available to pupils
  • demographics and diversity of visitors to local cultural venues
  • impacts on curriculum.

‘You can see from their faces that they love coming and having all these experiences that they wouldn’t get at home.’


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