The news that as many as one in four local councils may be axing their crossing patrols has left schools in an awkward position. "It is a dilemma," says John Bagwell, head of Hayeswood First School in Colehill, Dorset. "We have a travel plan which aims to get more children walking to school. But how can I encourage parents to let their children walk if dangerous crossings are not being supervised?"
Schools are not responsible for children's safety outside school, but nor do local councils have any legal obligation to provide crossing patrols. The law is clear: responsibility for ensuring children's safe arrival at school rests firmly with their parents. That does not mean schools can just wash their hands. "There is a moral responsibility, too," says Mr Bagwell. "Road safety is everyone's concern."
Councils have been anxious to defend their cuts - suggesting that teaching children good road sense is more important than supervising crossings.
"We have about 350 schools and only 50 or so patrols," says a spokesperson for Northamptonshire Council, which is planning to axe its lollipop men and women to save about #163;200,000. "So the majority of schools are coping well without a patrol."
But this argument does not impress Paul Osborne, of transport charity Sustrans. "The reason patrols exist in the first place is that those particular crossing points have been deemed dangerous," he says. "Road sense may not be enough."
So what are the options for schools that want to keep their patrols? One possibility is to find the cash - but a single crossing patrol costs about #163;3,500 a year, a sum most small primaries would struggle to find.
Another option is to rely on volunteers, but again, it is far from straightforward. While there is nothing to stop a willing parent keeping an eye on things, only a trained, authorised and insured volunteer can actually stand in the road and stop traffic. Given the level of commitment required, Paul Osborne doubts that volunteers are a long-term solution. "Many councils struggle to recruit even when it is a paid position," he says.
Of course, if all else fails, concerned heads have one final option - pull on a fluorescent jacket and do the job themselves. Tania Johnson, head at Horringer Court Middle School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, has done just that, stepping into the breach when the school's lollipop man retired and was not replaced. She shares crossing duties with the rest of her leadership team, all of whom have been trained. "It is not ideal," she says, "because we can't have our morning briefings. But the road is used as a cut-through and we are right on a bend - we have to make sure children are safe."
As well as ensuring her pupils' safety, Ms Johnson's efforts have also helped to draw attention to how strongly schools feel about losing their lollipop people.
"It is important that everyone makes their views known," says Ellen Booth of road safety charity Brake. "Research shows that children are less able than adults to judge the speed of a vehicle. That makes them vulnerable. Our advice to schools is to protest and get a campaign going."
CROSS WITH CAUTION
- Parents may escort children across a road, but only authorised personnel can stop traffic.
- Some local authorities, such as Dorset, are offering training and support for volunteer lollipop people.
- If your school is hoping to fund a crossing patrol, it may be worth asking your parish council for assistance. A parent-led fundraising campaign is another possibility.
- Some communities have saved their crossing patrols following protests. Go to www.brake.org.ukconcerned-community.