Why wild animals are leading a charge towards tackling obesity, health problems and pollution. Hannah Frankel explains
A giraffe is the first through the school gates in Putney, south-west London. Close on its heels is a lion, a family of elephants and a zebra. Soon there is every wild animal you can imagine, plus some you can't. In all, 53 pupils have pulled out the stops for the "Decorate your bike as an African animal" competition at Hotham Primary School.
Everything from loo rolls to papier mache and egg cartons has been glued, painted and pummelled into shape to make the best possible props. Plus there are 30 more undecorated bicycles and riders.
It is impressive that there are more than 80 cyclists in the school today - last September, there were nine at most.
The competition is just one initiative organised by Bike It, a scheme set up in 2004 by Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity.
Four years on and Bike It officers now work with about 300 schools across the UK, using every idea imaginable to get pupils cycling - from encouraging teenage girls to design fashionable cycle wear, to a virtual bike ride from Cairo to Cape Town.
And it appears to be working: cycling uptake typically trebles in participating schools. Bike Week, which starts tomorrow, aims to boost these figures through organising thousands of free cycling events nationwide, including community picnics, bike rides and competitions.
But it will take more than a one-off event to get the nation on its bike. Pupils may need to exercise - there are an estimated one million obese children under 16 in the UK - but they are reluctant.
The school run is a good example. Primary children typically live within 1.5 miles of their school and secondary pupils within 3.4 miles, according to the most recent National Travel Survey. Figures collected in 2006 show that most pupils could walk to school, but half don't bother. Just 2 per cent cycle.
The frustration is that cycling or walking could solve many problems, according to Kris Murrin, a professional troubleshooter. The presenter of Channel 4's The Woman who Stops Traffic series had just three days to convince the people of Marlow, Boston and Durham to give up their cars, with varying degrees of success. On Marlow's "car-free day", just 10 per cent of pupils travelled to school by car; but a similar initiative in Boston actually saw traffic increase.
"One mum I met jealously guarded her car park space 20 minutes before school ended when she lived just six minutes' walk away," Kris says.
"I heard a plethora of excuses about why parents don't want their children to walk." Parents and teachers can be concerned about safety, so-called "stranger danger": children getting knocked over. But abductions are rare and, although far too many people die on British roads (about 3,200 each year), deaths have halved since the 1960s, says the Department for Transport.
The same can not be said of the obesity epidemic, which - through its links with diabetes, heart disease and cancer - claims an estimated 30,000 lives a year, according to a House of Commons public accounts committee.
Walking or cycling helps young people become more streetwise and fewer cars lead to safer streets. "Walking increases road awareness, creates a cohesive community, improves health and a readiness to learn," adds Kris.
Parents may be apathetic, but schools - by law - cannot. By 2010, every school in England must have a travel plan, outlining how staff, parents and pupils travel to and from school in a safe and sustainable way. The rest of the UK has no deadline to make school travel plans compulsory, although sustainable travel remains a priority. In Scotland, for example, 76 per cent of schools are working on, or have completed plans - well ahead of England.
Many schools in England have already introduced innovative schemes to reduce car travel, usually with the aid of a trail-blazing teacher. At Offerton School that person is Dan Chesters. The head of history cycles 20 miles a day to and from his home in Manchester to work in Stockport. He feels like he has had a workout after his 40 minute cycle in, while his journey home relieves the stress of the day.
He says: "Security has become less of an issue now that we've got better bike sheds, while freebies and breakfasts for cyclists provided by the school have helped too."
But it's not plain sailing. In expensive parts of the country, teachers may not be able to afford housing close near school. In rural areas, the distances may be too much. Notley Green Primary School in Braintree, Essex, was hailed as the first sustainable school in the UK when it opened in 1999. Its car park was small to encourage walkers and cyclists, with 15 spaces for 58 members of staff, plus almost 400 pupils. But the majority need to drive in to reach the school.
"We're not served well by public transport and some staff travel up to 40 miles each way to get into school," says Jacqui Green, head. "I would never reject an exceptional teacher just because they live further away, but the car park makes life difficult and there's also nowhere for parents to drop their children off safely."
Andy Casson, a Bike It officer in London, agrees that some schools have difficulties, but insists there are solutions. "Schools must first be willing to chip away at the barriers (see box, left). Then they'll see cycling ticks so many boxes: Every Child Matters, the healthy schools initiative, improved concentration and behaviour. Schools soon feel the benefits and find ways to make it happen."
- www.sustrans.org.ukbikeit; www.bikeweek.org.uk
To find out more about how to encourage walking or cycling at your school, contact Sustrans' infoline on 0117 915 0100 or email email@example.com
THE BENEFITS OF BIKING
- Health Just 15 minutes' exercise a day can halve a child's risk of becoming obese. It also minimises the risk of cancer, diabetes and depression.
- Congestion Twenty per cent of traffic at 8.50am on a school morning is doing the school run.
- Pollution Car passengers are exposed to pollution levels two or three times higher than pedestrians.
- Alertness Pupils cycling to school arrive more alert and ready to learn.
- Streetwise Pupils who walk or cycle will learn more road safety skills and awareness.
How to make it happen
- Convince the head to make sustainable travel a priority.
- Discuss it with parents. Use a map to identify where everyone lives to see if they can start a walking bus into school. www.walkingbus.com
- Find quieter routes for walkers or cyclists. www.saferroutestoschool.org.uk - Offer pupils cycling proficiency. www.bikeability.org.uk
- Motivate staff, parents and pupils to try an alternative to the car just once. They will quickly see the benefits. www.sustrans.org.ukbikeit
- Record and reward participating pupils.
- Organise regular events, such as Walk on Wednesdays (WoW) www.walktoschool.org.uk.