The school run

Memorandum prepared for the scrutiny panel of the London Borough of Camden.

For much of the working day, many areas of Camden have severe problems of traffic congestion, road danger and pollution. There are also insufficient places to park vehicles to match the demand. These problems are most acute in Hampstead during the school term. A major explanation is that this part of the Borough has a remarkably high and probably unique density of schools which provide education for a substantial population of schoolchildren living beyond what could be described as a conventional school catchment area. Those affected include residents living in properties adjacent to the roads that are used most intensively, other road users, especially pedestrians, as well as .the drivers of the vehicles who contribute to these adverse effects.

Parental choice and schools admission policy
Where parents can exercise choice, they understandably wish the school for their children to be one that will deliver as high a standard of education as can be obtained. The primary limit on their choice, apart from the fees, is the amount of time and effort they are prepared to devote to getting their children to school in the morning and back home in the afternoon. All too often, this process has resulted in the selection of an independent school which is not local to their home.

The fact that many parents are prepared to take on this time-consuming and often stressful role by escorting their children for several years, typically for a few miles in the morning and afternoon each day, suits these schools. It enables them to select the pupils they judge to be the ‘brightest’ ones who in turn are likely to enhance the school’s reputation. In seeking to find solutions to the school run problem, therefore, it needs to be recognised that the admissions policy of schools is a crucial factor in the equation. Whether this policy takes account of how far the child will have to travel and what mode is used is at least as important a contributor to the problem and its resolution as the use of cars for it makes the scope for achieving a transfer from their use easier or more difficult.

Method of travel and distance to school
The explanation for this is simple. The greater the distance between home and school, the more likely it is that the journey will be beyond reasonable walking distance and, in view of the limitations of public transport, the more likely it is that parents will prefer to take their child by car. It is important too to note that, with growing affluence, the wider availability of cars has contributed to a higher proportion of children being ‘chauffeured’. Even more significantly, it has resulted in parental perception of more schools from which to choose, again often resulting in the selection of a school that is further away from their home.

The effects of these changes of opportunity are very evident in the available statistics on the subject. Recent National Travel Surveys have revealed that the number of children taken to and from school by car has doubled in the last 12 years alone. Not surprisingly, they also show that the average distance between home and the school of 5-10 year olds and of 11-16 year olds has increased by 20% and 35% respectively over this same period. The findings of the Oscar Faber study carried out for Camden showed that, in 1998, 60% of children going to independent schools went by car. This was in sharp contrast to only 6% of those attending the local authority schools which had and continue to have entry policies favouring children living close by. There are good reasons for thinking that three to four years on since these findings were made, all the proportions noted above are now higher.

The wide difference between schools in the extent of car use is easily accounted for by analysing the mode of travel used against the distance travelled. Obviously more children living relatively close to a school can reach it on foot. The Oscar Faber figures show that only 21% of children who attended independent schools, but 75% of those attending local authority schools, travelled less than one mile. It is clear that the independent schools have much larger catchment areas from which the children attending them are drawn. In this regard, it would be very revealing if Camden were to run a special tabulation on the Oscar Faber data base in order to show within each distance band of their school what proportion of children was taken by car and what proportion went on foot.

Environmental considerations
In addition to relationships with method of travel and distance travelled, the decisions of parents and schools determine the extent of local and global impacts on the environment. This is particularly so when children are escorted by car owing to the shortage of parking places. Of course, these externalities rise with distance between home and school: as with commuting to work by car, the longer the journey, the greater the problems of noise, pollution, danger, road congestion and delay. A child living three miles from his or her school and taken and collected by car for five years from entry contributes to these adverse effects. This adds up to about 10,000 vehicle miles being driven during this period — in the case of inner London, on already heavily congested roads. Understandably, residents living along the routes taken and in the locality of the schools resent the consequent lowering of the quality of their lives from the aggregation of thousands of parents not choosing a local school for their child.

Health aspects
These brief comments on the extent of the impacts of traffic however represent an insufficient focus of evidence on which to base decisions on how to resolve the difficulties associated with the use of cars on the school run. Our research has shown that the selection of a school that is beyond reasonable walking distance of the child’s home has other damaging outcomes affecting those who make this choice. Several surveys in recent years have shown a disturbing increase in the incidence of overweight children, making them more prone to heart disease in later life. In the past, the regular daily ‘dose’ of exercise of walking (or cycling) to and from school and other destinations was a key feature in maintaining and promoting children’s physical health. We found that, regrettably, parents are giving their children the ‘licence’ to travel on their own, that is of course predominantly on foot, at a progressively later age than they did in the past[1].

In addition, children’s social and emotional maturation is not aided by the loss of experiences in these critical years of their formative development whether getting about on foot on their own or with friends, and without adult supervision[2]. It is salutary to note too that surveys of children’s attitudes have revealed a preference for walking or cycling rather than travel by car or bus. The daily dose of walking also enhances mood — a benefit that could hardly be applied to travel to school in a car or a school bus. And the potential improvement in their quality of life from walking on a regular basis extends beyond physical and mental health considerations. A recent study in Exeter entitled ‘Fit to Succeed’ reported a strong correlation between poor academic performance and lack of regular physical activity.

Scope for alleviating the problems of the school run
Clearly, a balance has to be struck between enabling parental choice of school and limiting the damaging consequences for children and for the local community of the increase in traffic this process all too often generates. The last few years has seen a further twist to this vicious circle, with an increasing proportion of parents and children being involved in a stressful, time-consuming and largely unrewarding extended pattern of travel. The pattern, increasingly by car, runs counter to the widely-shared objective of bringing about traffic reduction. Where does the solution lie?

To their considerable credit, some schools have taken steps to achieve a reduction in the level of traffic they generate and to mitigate the immediate annoyances and frustrations of local residents as well as minimising the perceived need for parents to just take their own children to school. With support from central and local government, many schools are now adopting Green Travel Plans. In some instances, arrangements have been made for parents to take turns in regulating school traffic, for example in the Netherhall Gardens area, with a one-way system operating during school hours. Children are assisted in getting out of cars to minimise congestion on the roads in the vicinity and are accompanied to the school gates where necessary. Car sharing has also been promoted and parents reminded of the need to be more considerate of residents’ concerns about parking outside their homes.

A commonly-shared view is that a further major contribution to alleviating the problem lies in the provision of school buses. From a road congestion and environmental viewpoint, the consequent reduction in car traffic may be welcome, and therefore can be seen as an appropriate strategy to promote. However, it is important to note that, from a child’s perspective, this strategy has a number of disadvantages that need to be taken into account.

Travel in school buses tends to be very time-consuming owing to their slower speed compared with the door-to-door convenience of cars. The buses also have to follow circuitous routes and stop at intervals to pick up and drop off their passengers. Most of the journey represents wasted time which children could otherwise spend in more rewarding ways. The buses have to run at prescribed times, precluding flexibility to allow for children’s after-school activity. In the case of the more economical-to-run larger coaches, there can be difficulties in negotiating narrower streets and in finding parking locations sufficiently close to the schools they serve. This can make it necessary for supervising adults to accompany younger children from the bus to the school and vice-versa. And a substantial cost is entailed: current calculations suggest that it is unlikely that a charge for this service can be lower than £45 a week. Finally, as noted earlier, where children travel by bus, as by car, they do not benefit from the regular daily exercise that walking (or cycling) allows which is so conducive to promoting their health.

The use by older children of the underground and buses as well the proposal for new bus services for them, for instance, from Muswell Hill to Swiss Cottage, is a further way of reducing car use. Here again, however, the door-to-travel time from home to school becomes considerable and largely represents a waste of the child’s time. In view of these disadvantages and other parental concerns about public transport, there are grounds for believing that only a relatively small number of children can be encouraged to transfer to it.

As its contribution to ameliorating the present problems of the school run, Camden is in the process of implementing a strategy on creating Safe Routes to School. In view of the costs involved, however, the prospect of its widespread coverage of the catchment of all or most of the schools in the Borough must be seen as a very long-term prospect. Moreover, its completion cannot realistically be seen to be relevant to independent schools when they continue to maintain admissions policies that ignore the location of the child’s home in relation to that of the school in question.

Camden has also had a long-term policy of making a key concession to car drivers bringing children to, and collecting them from school. This has taken the form of allowing parents a 10 to 15-minute so-called ‘grace’ period by which cars are allowed to be parked in residents’ bays and on yellow lines. It is difficult to understand why this intrinsically undesirable concession, which does relatively little by way of mitigating the problem of the school run, continues to be made. Indeed, in some important respects, the effect is exacerbated as car use for children’s travel to and from school is thereby facilitated.

It is even more difficult to see why the concession is maintained given that it is not even available, for example, for doctors, social workers and others catering for the relatively critical needs of the local population. Resentment is understandably felt by Camden residents — all ratepayers — not least because this preferential treatment is not available to them. Not surprisingly, they wonder why the concessions should be made, particularly as they are the ones who are exposed to much of the inconveniences and danger of the schools traffic and its environmental hazards.

It can be seen that the solutions being put forward and implemented by the schools and Camden fall far short of what could be considered to be ideal. The problem is most severe in Hampstead with its very substantial number of schools within close proximity of each other. It is clear that the source of the problem and its solution lies in addressing the issue of the wider take-up of parental choice and particularly the admissions policies of the independent schools. No longer can it be considered acceptable for this freedom to be exercised in isolation from its wider social and environmental repercussions. It is obvious that the criterion of distance between home and school, and its traffic consequences should not be ignored — or, at best, given insufficient weight — by those who are in the most influential position to be effective in limiting them.

The adverse effects can be partially mitigated by achieving a transfer to other modes of travel and to wider sharing of cars. At least as important, however, is the issue of the distance that the car has to be driven. A reduction in the existing level of overall car mileage on the journey to and from school is clearly a more appropriate objective than achieving a reduction in the number of journeys with only one child in a car. In attempting to counter these problems, particularly from a road congestion and environmental viewpoint, it is noteworthy that ten cars travelling five miles daily contribute more of these adverse effects than 20 cars only travelling two miles.

Conclusions and recommendations
It is understandable for parents who have chosen a school for their children to attend which can only conveniently be reached by car to complain when, in order to reduce the extent of the ‘costs’ on the community of car use, measures are taken to dissuade them from using one. They can plead that they made their decision at a time when there was no incentive for them to anticipate any changes which would now make it unacceptable to them.

For this reason, there is a strong case to be made for giving due notice, so that schools and parents — prospective as well as existing — have sufficient time to make other arrangements, that the anomalous ‘grace period’ concession will be withdrawn from say September 2003 or 2004. From then on, parents bringing and collecting their children by car would have to conform to the regulations on parking, only using the ‘pay and display’ facilities even though that may entail a longer walk owing to their insufficiency. The only exception to this arrangement would of course be where a particular child had some disability. Running parallel with the removal of the concession would be the need for schools — not only those in the public sector — to adopt admission policies in which there would be a strong presumption in favour of children living in the neighbourhood of the school.

At the same time, during the transition to the full implementation of such policies, it may well be appropriate to promote use of school buses. To this end, schools would be encouraged to liaise with companies offering this service in order to arrive at the most advantageous terms that come in the wake of ‘economies of scale’.

The prospects for promoting walking are by no means as limiting as would appear at first sight, particularly if parents can be assured that the route to school has safe road crossing points. After all, a walk of one mile (or perhaps even one and a half miles) — whether the child is accompanied or not — should take no more than 20 minutes. That represents an ideal period of exercise as well as an important learning experience in the ‘informal classroom’ of the outdoor environment. In support of such a strategy, and other related ones, Camden should put more of its limited resources into creating a safer traffic environment.

There are two themes related to these recommendations which the Scrutiny Panel may wish to consider as they reinforce the case for their adoption. First, a strong case could be made for discouraging the use of cars by the staff of schools. Not only does this contribute to all the adverse effects noted above but it also sets a bad example to parents and children by giving the impression that cars are essential for their journeys. This may be true in some instances, but certainly not in all instances.

Second, over and above the traffic and parking aspects, there is the issue relating to the quality of life of local communities in which schools are located. Traditionally, schools for children below the age of 11 have been seen as an important focus of activity because children’s friendship patterns can develop more naturally within a local community as they can be extended informally into their leisure lives. Similarly, community spirit is better nurtured in an environment where more people know each other. Parents, and sometimes grandparents, are better able to share a common purpose in looking after and improving the quality of their neighbourhood where there is less anonymity. The larger the geographical catchment of the school, the less likely it is that these desirable relationships will thrive.

1. Hillman, M, Adams, J, Whitelegg, J, One False Move: a study of children’s independent mobility, Policy Studies Institute, 1991.
2. Hillman, M., ‘Curbing children’s social and emotional development’: an unrecognised outcome of parental fears’, The Journal of Contemporary Health, issue 8/winter 1999/2000.

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