Arnold's world

12th June 1998 at 01:00
Once upon a time children with shining morning faces crept like snails unwillingly to school. Now their mums drive them. In those frenetic minutes before first bell, the road outside any school looks like the scene of a motorway pile-up. To a fanfare of angry horns and emitting enough noxious fumes to defoliate a sizeable Norwegian forest, badly parked hatchbacks, people carriers and assorted run-arounds disgorge their young occupants.

The children, you'll notice, are well-used to being chauffeured. With the insouciance of busy government ministers arriving at an international summit, they alight purposefully without as much as a thank you or a nod of recognition to the poor soul who has driven them there.

Next Tuesday has been designated National Car Free Day when every public spirited citizen - especially doting parents - should ask themselves if their journey is really necessary. Driving children to school deprives them not only of the only daily exercise they are likely to have, but also of one of the most pleasurable aspects of compulsory schooling.

Some of the fondest memories I have of my green and salad days are of our daily treks to school: the camaraderie, the quips, the quiddities, the satchel that doubled as a football, the efforts we devoted to our John Lennon accents, the care we took with our Mick Jagger slouch, and the fascinating facts that older boys taught us - few of which I have ever found confirmed in a medical text book. There was also the awesome discovery that girls, too, walked to school; that their heels clicked, their hips swung, their Silvikrined hair shimmered just like it did in the ads; that they had a biscuit tin of cookery ingredients which you could offer to carry in a John Lennon accent. Who in his right mind would have wanted a lift with his mum when a walk to school offered that?

Some children, of course, take the school bus. Adults never travel in these screaming sardine cans and so can only guess at the terrors such a journey entails. I once asked a bus driver to tell me about his experiences on the school run, and was immediately reminded of the watery-eyed veterans of the Somme and Ypres that I'd known in my childhood. "I'd rather not talk about it,'' he'd say.

I have an inkling of what it must be like. There have been times when I have boarded the 3.16, forgetting that there is a request stop outside a school.

Terrified, I have witnessed a plague of adolescents swarm, like Hitchcock's birds, down the aisle and roost menacingly on every available surface. It's impossible to tell where one child ends and another begins. They become a single, multi-headed monster of regulation grey, smelling of smoky bacon, gym shoes and spearmint; a howling shambles of legs, pony-tails, elbows and Adidas. You can't believe that only minutes before teachers were drilling them in the principle parts of avoir, enlightening them on the effects of glaciation, or providing guitar accompaniment as they harmonised Nymphs and Shepherds Come Away.

Government and shadow education ministers should take the occasional trip on the 3.16 if only to remind themselves of what children en masse are actually like. They will also feel nothing but gratitude for those parents who have the decency to seat-belt their young ones into a car for the journey to and from school. It's well worth the sacrifice of a few Norwegian spruce.

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