Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Safe Routes to School

First published in Governing Matters, the magazine of the National Governance Association, November 2018. Author: Foster, A.

A family cycling to school at Bessemer Grange Primary in Southwark

As a member of a local Safe Routes to School forum, I know that some school leaders are battling with dangerous driving, illegal parking and hostile, aggressive behaviour around the school gates at peak times. Whilst leaders are focused on guaranteeing educational attainment in the face of swingeing budget cuts, the school run issue has started to absorb valuable resources as school’s attempt to keep pupils and their families safe.

Making the school run and our school streets safer and healthier is an urgent issue. The answer seems so simple; leaving the car at home and instead walking or cycling to school. If everyone did this, there would be some 25% reduction in the volume of traffic on the roads at peak times. So how?

Active travel (walking, cycling or otherwise travelling ‘actively’) has been called ‘a wonder drug’ by public health doctors, due to the huge benefits it can be bring to both physical and mental health. Schools are invited to join active travel schemes, such as Modeshift, in order to encourage families to switch from driving to active travel choices, in turn making the roads safer and cleaner as traffic volumes decrease.

But what is perhaps lesser known within school communities is the benefits active travel can have on educational attainment.  Dr Darshana Bhattacharjee’s 2015 research highlights the benefits of active travel to school, concluding; ‘There is convincing evidence that physical activity and fitness levels in school children is associated with better academic scores and improved classroom behaviour.’ Equally, a Danish study of  nearly 20,000 students found those who walked or cycled “have an increased power of concentration, and the effect of this ‘exercise’ lasts all morning.”’

So why is it so few families do indeed walk or cycle to school?

The answer it seems, is our roads. Land transport accidents are the biggest cause of death for young people aged 5 to 19 and parents are rightly concerned about whether the healthy travel choice is actually the safe travel choice.

As a governor, parents’ and carers’ travel choices may seem a difficult thing to influence but this is decidedly not the case and in fact, an active travel plan ought to be a key facet of any school improvement plan.

Reaching out and forging connections with the local community and elected representatives is hugely important and can achieve great things. Inviting councillors or cabinet members to attend school play streets can open up discussions about what kind of community the school wishes to be part of.  Working in partnership with other local schools can also strengthen relationships with local authorities, so that road engineering treatments can be directed around schools, creating safer walking and cycling routes to enable active travel, as recommended by the recent NICE paper on physical activity and the environment. Furthermore, making sure your school has a school travel plan and is using SMART targets to meet the goals within it is vital.

This may seem a challenge, give that the agenda of an average governors' meeting is often jam-packed with little room for non-data related topics. However, there are ways of making safer, active travel a whole school priority. Dan Kelly, a parent governor at Stoneydown Park Primary School in Waltham Forest describes how he 'made himself useful' before talking to the headteacher about his plans for a road closure scheme on their school street .

"Because I was the link governor for SEND, I spent a lot of time in school and had really established a positive working relationship with the SLT before asking for time at one of our governors meetings to present on active travel.  Luckily, our head is really supportive of this kind of whole school, healthy lifestyles approach and we were able to go to our local authority as a united community when asking for the quite radical changes we wished to see.

It took some time, but we're really proud of the fact that our council supported our proposals, putting in the road closure we asked for. We've seen the number of cars passing the school drop by 1000 journeys per day and an equivalent rise in cycling traffic, which is phenomenal."

Such proposals may seem radical today given how many children in the UK are driven to school each day. Yet as studies demonstrate the disproportionate effect poor air quality from motor traffic can have on children’s health (and indeed future health), it may be time to acknowledge that being radical is now the only way forward.

What you can do to help:

1. Ask about your schooltravel plan and how active travel rates are monitored.  Schools in London can become accredited using the Transport for London STARS scheme (https://stars.tfl.gov.uk/) and Modeshift STARS is the national scheme (https://modeshiftstars.org/). Accredited schools are often able to use their work for these schemes as evidence when applying for grants and active travel funding.

2. Read the National Education Union and British Lung Foundation ‘air pollution health advice for schools’ (available online at https://neu.org.uk/latest/national-education-union-and-british-lung-foundation-launch-air-pollution-health-advice).  
The Cleaner Air 4 Primary Schools toolkit was designed for schools in London, but is filled with activities for launching an air quality awareness campaign in school (https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/ca4s_toolkit.pdf).

3. Contact your local politicians.  Invite councillors or cabinet members to visit the school at peak time if you wish to highlight an issue; alternatively or to celebrate your achievements. Many councils are creating informal clean air zones and good practice clusters, aiming to get schools working together, trialling new measures. 

4. Organise a play street. A temporary road closure, even as a one off, might do much to start the conversation about what road safety means to your school community. Theme it around clean air or  road safety and invite a charity such as ‘Idling Action’ or your local road safety officers, to highlight the impact driving to school has on children’s health and wellbeing.

5. Find out what parents think. It may be that many parents are interested in active travel but feel too intimidated by the road and traffic conditions in the local area. A parent champion can work wonders; organising play streets, running cycle skills sessions and building support from other parents are all vital if bigger changes are to happen.