Mayer Hillman is an eminent academic whose inspired number-crunching 40 years ago predicted today’s cotton-wool culture. This week, he was due to speak on the topic of school journeys at the Royal Geographical Society conference in London.
Dr Hillman, has long argued for society to make roads safer for children rather than simply keeping them indoors and creating a chauffeured generation. His classic study One False Move, a study of children’s independent mobility, carried out with John Adams and John Whitelegg, revealed that the number of seven and eight-year-olds getting to school on their own dropped from 80 per cent in 1971 to nine per cent in 1990.
Speaking to the TES, Dr Hillman, senior fellow emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute, said: “In 1971, I was appalled at the extent to which children were accompanied on journeys to school. Had I but known it, I hadn’t seen nothing yet. Children’s freedom to go around on their own steadily declined because of parental fears, principally about traffic, and also about abduction.”
Stranger abduction of children is rare, but heavy traffic is a common problem. One False Move also pointed out that a reduction in road accidents did not necessarily mean the roads were safer, simply that children were being kept away from them.
Dr Hillman, 75, still cycles around north west London. Sometimes, he leans into the open windows of four by fours, to tell mothers who are dropping their children off at school, that in their concern to minimise the risk for their child they have exposed other children to greater risk. His argument is usually met with two fingers, he cheerfully admits.
“All parents want to do the best for children and minimise their exposure to risk,” he said. “Parents, perhaps understandably, think school choice is critical in terms of children’s future, but there are downsides to that decision. Chauffeuring children denies them physical exercise, it denies them the exposure to risk that I think is an essential part of growing up. What I have observed through my surveys is that the age at which children are allowed to do things on their own has advanced inexorably. The freedoms which I had as a seven-year-old are now not granted to children until they are 12 or 13. The consequences of that are extremely serious in terms of children’s development.”
But, he claims, the days of parental choice may be numbered by the increasing need to tackle climate change. He is an advocate for personal carbon rationing, in which adults and children are each allocated credits which are used to buy fuel or electricity. He said that such a policy, if adopted, could mean parents would have to choose the school nearest to them. “Better to interfere with parental choice,” said Dr Hillman, “than to interfere with the future of the planet.”
Published in the Times Educational Supplement on 7 September 2007