THAT time-honoured refuge of the teenage smoker, the bike-shed, could be making a comeback, as the Government wants children to cycle, walk or use public transport to school instead of the family car.
Over a generation the journey to school has changed in many ways - children have to travel further, carry more books and equipment, have more traffic to contend with and are more pushed for time. So says a new report published by the Government's school travel advisory group.
"Our aim," says the report, "should be to return by 2010 to the level of walking, cycling and bus use in the mid 1980s."
The picture of commuting varies around the country with nearly three-quarters of primary children in the North-east walking to school, but under half doing so in the West Midlands, the South-east and the South-west. One in eight 11- to 16-year-olds is driven to school in East Anglia compared with more than a quarter in the South-east.
Overall, the group's target would mean that 80 per cent of primary-age children would use alternatives to the car compared with 63 per cent now, and 90 per cent of secondary pupils compared with 79 per cent today.
This would benefit health,
education, transport and the
environment, says the report.
The group was set up in December 1998 after the publication of the White Paper A new deal for transport: better for
everyone, which noted the peak-time volume of traffic congestion caused by the "school run".
Its members included representatives from parents, teachers and governors bodies; public- transport operators; road safety, child health and school transport experts; local authorities and Government departments.
The report found that "dramatic changes" had occurred in the past 10 years with the proportion of journeys to school by car nearly doubling from 16 to 29 per cent. At 8.50am in term time, one in five cars on urban roads is taking children to school; one in 11 primary pupils now goes to school unaccompanied, while 10 years ago, one in five did; the average length of of the journey to school for secondary pupils has gone up by a third.
In order to combat "these formidable, steeply rising trends" the report says parents, teachers, governors, local authorities, transport-providers and the
Government will have to make a "joined-up" effort.
But the group believes that a good start has been made, with guides already published for schools and local authorities, school travel strategies included in local transport plans, health improvement programmes and healthy schools initiatives.
So far, 37 schools have been chosen to take part in a pilot scheme that will offer free expert advice in developing tailor-made school travel plans. Ministers are also considering ways to fund lockers, cycle storage and bus bays and they have commissioned a study into ways of increasing journeys by bus to school.
The report says better use should be made of the substantial resources already devoted to school transport, so that they focus on safe, healthy and environmentally-friendly travel.
It recommends that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and bus operators work towards a voluntary minimum standard for discounts for all children of compulsory school age. Bus drivers should be trained in safety issues and how to deal with child passengers; and children should be taught how to behave safely and responsibly in traffic, whether as pedestrians, cyclists or passengers.
The Home Office and police associations should include school travel concerns in community safety audits and policing plans; and all drivers should be made aware of road safety for child pedestrians and cyclists, the dangers of parking near schools and excessive speed.
Governors' training, the report says, should inform them of potential liability and insurance matters connected with school travel; and school inspectors should recognise the value of a school's travel plans in their reports.
These plans should also provide teachers with ideas for lessons in citizenship, geography, personal, social and health education, and become part of the healthy schools programme.
Whether parents can be prised from their vehicles first thing on a cold winter's morning to walk their children to school remains to be seen.
School Travel Advisory Group report, 1998-1999, is on the DETR school travel website:www.local transport.detr.gov.ukschool travel
TARGETS FOR TRANSPORT
Make it possible for every child to walk, cycle or take public
transport to school
* Secure cycle storage, lockers and bus bays in schools
* Minimum standard concessionary bus fare for under-16s
* More road safety education for children
* Better training for bus and car drivers
* Improved enforcement of speed, parking and other traffic regulations