Who's up for a row on wheels?

8th September 2006 at 01:00
There are many stressful stages in family life, even among the affluent.

Many years ago, a Catholic friend of my mother's claimed she offered up a solemn sung mass of thanksgiving on the day the last live-in au pair left.

I sometimes feel the same when September comes round and I remember school runs. On one level, these are delightful: you have your young children around you, you are involved in their lives, you have power to protect, you can help and support them and share the lively mayhem of school life.

On the other hand, school runs can be pure hell. Surveys from the website YouGov and the Department for Transport reveal (hah!) that a third of parents who drive to school say it is the worst time for family arguments.

If they had probed further, no doubt the other two-thirds would have told them that the 10 minutes before getting them into the car are even worse, since there is at least some relief in having your payload safely strapped down and equipped with the correct gym kit, musical instruments, completed projects, dinner money and matching shoes.

The Department adds - craftily given its traffic-management agenda - that 73 per cent of parents think that walking to school offers the bonus of spending time chatting with children, and avoids the rows. A tame psychologist says - in that portentous tone in which her profession offers us glimpses of the bleeding obvious - that "many external factors can lead to stress, particularly in the car, and of course quarrels happen more easily when nerves are already frayed". Well, I never! A "well-planned walk", she says, is a better option.

Memories flood back: car doors banging, desperate searches of the dog's basket for uniform socks, and cries of "My cornet! I forgot my cornet!"

just as you ease on to the main road. Better memories accompany them, of course: I remember vital confidences exchanged because it is easier to tell something to the back of your mother's head, and marvellous overhearings when a communal school run brought children together to chat. I specially liked the one about assembly, which was like having a group of small peppery theatre critics in the back: "Mrs X is sooo boring... goes on about Jesus in a stupid voice" "Mr Y is cool. He does jokes" "Yeah, but they're pants jokes" "Yeah, but it's better than stuff about lambs" "I liked the one about the Arab guy who asked Mohammed somefing" "What?" "I forgot." And on it goes.

But the Government and its psychologist are quite right: it would be far better for health, traffic and possibly tempers if more families walked to school. For us in remote farmhouses, that was an impossible dream, a golden fantasy. No buses and a minimum 45-minute trek for primary school; a brief, glorious period of only having to drive to the station and put them on a train to walk up through the town; finally, an admission of defeat and teenage boarding rather than condemning them to daily hours on the howling A12. But that was our fault for living up a track.

The really disgraceful thing is that the system has made walking equally impossible for tens of thousands of urban families, enforcing the gear-grinding, teeth-grinding motorised school run forever. Admissions policies and vastly uneven quality of schools mean long, gruelling runs across town. The failure of many schools to provide lockers means British children carry heavier loads in backpacks than any in the surveyed world - up to a third of their body weight. Decades of selfish, motorist-friendly traffic schemes have made walking or cycling too dangerous for many, and the end of beat policemen has added another layer of danger to the streets.

Untrammelled house-price rises make dual careers compulsory rather than elective. If Mum has to get to work, Dad has already gone, and the school is one that refuses to open its safe gates early, then out comes the car.

There are good schemes slowly evolving: early opening, breakfast, walking-buses (the yellow US schoolbus idea seems to have faded). But we have largely painted ourselves into a corner over school runs, and the corner is full of petrol fumes and stress.

So it really doesn't help much to have government surveys spouting patronising truisms. Humans are adaptable and resourceful. If the car is the only way they can adapt to the legal requirement to deliver their children to school, the logistical fact that the only decent one they can get into is four miles away, and the academic fact that a 20kg rucksack has to be toted to and fro, then the car is what they will use. And quarrel in.


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