Why is it only mums who must ditch cars?

26th September 2003 at 01:00
This government can be breathtakingly stupid at times, and this is one of them. Ministers have spent the past six years exhorting mothers to get off their lazy butts and back to work almost as soon as the umbilical cord is cut.

Yet its latest heavily-spun wheeze - to cut rush-hour traffic for everyone else by outlawing the school run - will primarily affect one group of people: working mothers. Just how does it think women get children to school and themselves to work without incurring the wrath of truancy officers and employers for lateness?

Broomsticks being in short supply these days, they have to drive - just like the rest of the population, in fact. But perhaps ministers such as Charles Clarke and Alastair Darling are too busy reading red boxes in their chauffeur-driven limos and banging on about joined-up thinking to notice this.

The really stupid thing about the school-run initiative is that I wholeheartedly agree with it - in spirit. I'm a working mother but, on the days I don't work, I walk my daughters to school and back again. I love doing this as it gives us time and space for rambling conversations, a bit of running and the glimmerings of independence, and to pick up on any looming worries about the day ahead. I think every young child should have that experience, eventually leading to the day when they make the journey alone, whether on foot, bike or public transport.

But I'm lucky. I don't have to combine the school run with the getting-to-work-on-time run, as so many others have to do. My childcare arrangements mean that, on days when I do I turf the kids out of the house with their carer, who walks them to school.

Yet sometimes I'm still running late and drive myself to the railway station, rather than walk. Why are Clarke and Darling perfectly happy for me to do that, in an otherwise empty car, but firmly against me loading it up with children and taking them to school on the way?

The Government is keen to stress its initiative is about "ideas and encouragement - not prescription". Fine. But why are the ideas and encouragement aimed only at the school run?

Education Secretary Charles Clarke says: "Twice as many children are driven to school now in comparison with 20 years ago - most of those journeys are less than two miles. Increased car use also means falling numbers of children walking or cycling with serious health implications in terms of lack of daily exercise and a growing proportion of children who are overweight." You could easily substitute the word "adult" for "children" all the way through the above, and almost any destination for "school" - yet he doesn't.

Transport supremo Alastair Darling is worried that at 8.50am one in five cars on the road is on the school run. Yet he seems unconcerned about the other four in five. Why? Have ministers not noticed the enormous social changes of the last 20 years?

Attacking the school run is a pretty poor substitute for the integrated transport policy we were promised in Labour's first term. It seems tantamount to shaming a group of road users who can be picked off as an easy target.

Talk of school run mums (it never seems to be dads, does it?) and you immediately get a picture of an environmentally unfriendly off-roader, packed with private school moppets and violins, snarling up the posher bits of London. What about the nurses driving battered, ancient Fiestas? What about the rural parents whose village school has closed down? Have they less right to drive than the sales rep in his Mondeo? Why should they have to cope with staggered school starting times on top of all the other juggling?

Yes, let's give more children the experience of first walking to school, then getting there under their own steam as they get older. Do let's look at ways in which we can make it happen, such as providing school lockers so secondary pupils don't have to carry a whole library and PE kit back and forth each day. But the rest of society has to do its bit as well - not just working mothers and their children.

Susan Young is editor of The TES's new Leadership section - see page 35

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