Transport planners are taking the challenge of the school run into the classroom. Martin Whittaker reports
In leafy Hampstead, war has been declared on the school run.
Every morning and afternoon, the journey to school in the London suburb puts an estimated 3,000 extra vehicles on the road. But the morning jam could soon be a thing of the past. In an attempt to ease the traffic, Camden Council will begin restricting parking around schools from this year. The issue has passions running high locally. News reports provoked a range of angry responses, from those irritated by parents double-parking their four-by-fours outside schools, to parents who insist their jobs leave them no choice but to drive.
The London borough is also running a Safe Routes to Schools initiative with all its primaries and secondaries. This involves transport planning officers working with schools to explore ideas for encouraging alternative journeys. This is all part of a Government attempt to tackle school-run congestion nationally, while at the same time encouraging schools to promote the benefits of sustainable travel.
The past two decades have seen huge changes in the way children travel to school. Car use has doubled, while the proportion of pupils walking or cycling has fallen sharply.
Safe Routes to Schools was launched by the sustainable transport charity Sustrans eight years ago. Its aim is to encourage more people to walk and cycle to school safely, improve road safety, improve children's health and development, and reduce traffic congestion and pollution. Last September, ministers pledged pound;50 million to the campaign over the next two years.
The initiative gives schools an ideal opportunity to teach citizenship. "I think this gets right down to the nitty-gritty of what citizenship is all about," says Rhian Barnes of Sustrans. "Young people are given the opportunity to find out about local democracy, to engage with community groups and to talk to residents around the school. "Their journey to school is something every child can understand. It's an opportunity for them to engage in the whole process and really make a difference."
Every school is being encouraged to work with local authorities, consulting with parents, pupils and local transport organisations to produce a travel plan that will reduce car use and improve road safety. So far, 2,000 schools nationally have adopted this agenda and the Government wants all schools to follow suit. It has produced an action plan and good practice guide, and grants will be available to help schools - pound;5,000 for primaries and pound;10,000 for secondaries.
As sustainable development is a theme running throughout all key stages, the DfES also wants schools to incorporate travel planning into the curriculum. All plans should include a travel survey, wherever possible carried out by pupils, and linked to geography, PSHE or citizenship work.
In citizenship, these plans provide a good opportunity for pupils to consider, for example, the effect of their travel choices on the environment. They also offer the chance for young people to get involved in decisions that affect them and their local community, and to realise that they can change things for the better.
North Yorkshire county council is cited as an example of good practice for the way it helps teachers and heads develop links between travel to school and the curriculum. Three years ago, the highways department recruited retired teachers and heads to take the sustainability message to the county's schools. About 80 out of 400 schools have produced travel plans.
Geoff Gardner, the county's travel awareness officer, says the work has brought a five per cent reduction in the number of parents driving children to school.
"We thought citizenship lent itself very well to this so we have targeted it," he said. "We went through the citizenship guidance at all key stages word by word, and looked at how it fits in with what we're doing, and what resources can we offer. If schools are talking about doing surveys, we can help by providing survey materials. If they want to speak to decision-makers, it's very easy for us to bring them into county hall. We have had debating sessions in the council chamber."
There is a wealth of support material on sustainable travel across the curriculum. The Department for Transport has a database of material for use in the classroom www.databases.dft.gov.ukschoolsSupport for school surveys can be found on the Young People's Transport Information Network www.youngtransnet.org.ukYou can find details on sustainable travel to school, including Travelling to School: A Good Practice Guide, and Travelling to School: An Action Plan on www.teachernet.gov.ukteachingandlearningsdfocusonsdtravel
WALKING THE WALK
Kings Norton Primary School in Birmingham has not only managed to fit Safe Routes to Schools into its curriculum - its pupils are influencing the decisions of local politicians.
Transport is a huge issue for the school, which is situated on the busy Pershore Road, a main arterial route through south Birmingham, with traffic jams, heavy lorries thundering past and frequent accidents. Children were asked to complete online surveys on how they came to school and the information was used as part of the school's travel plan. The survey highlighted real issues for those walking to school. A main pathway was blocked with overgrown ivy, and drivers were parking on double yellow lines opposite the school, causing a hazard for children crossing the road.
Kings Norton's school council was invited to put its case to Birmingham city councillors. The pathway has now been cleared, and some of the children's suggestions have been incorporated into transport consultation for the area.
"I think it's brilliant," said Gina Southey, senior teacher responsible for citizenship. "They get confidence in talking in an adult environment and in expressing their opinions in a way that understands that people have to make priorities."