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Back to School

PUBLISHED: 11:57 11 August 2008 | UPDATED: 15:22 20 February 2013

A Sustrans Bike It officer leads a cycle session in the playground. Photo by J Bewley/Sustrans

A Sustrans Bike It officer leads a cycle session in the playground. Photo by J Bewley/Sustrans

Since 1971, the proportion of seven- and eight-year-olds walking to school unaccompanied has fallen from 80% to just 9%. A handful of parents or grandparents on 'escort duty' will be walking them in, yet, as the new school year begins, the majorit...

In Somerset, the total annual mileage for pupils driven to school is 14,705,356. In North Somerset alone, more than 27,000 children are taken to school in cars and buses every day, and this is due to increasing car ownership and dependency as well as fears over road and personal safety. Witnesses to hectic school drop-off and pick-up times anywhere in the country will doubt that this trend can ever be reversed, but getting more children walking and cycling to school is a key government objective.

In Somerset, the total annual mileage for pupils driven to school is 14,705,356

The reasons why are obvious. Children who walk or cycle are fitter, they have better social skills, they have better road sense and can better appreciate their surroundings - provided it's not too polluted by cars!

But in order to turn the clock back, the journey to school will have to be a safer, with less potential for accidents en route and outside the school gates. To this end Sustrans, the UK's leading sustainable transport charity, has recently completed hundreds of traffic-free walking and cycling routes that link more than 20,000 children to their schools via the National Cycle Network.

Funded by the Department for Transport and Cycling England, the Links to Schools project has so far benefited more than 300 schools around the country, providing 200,000 children and their families with community paths, free from traffic. Nearly three million trips a year are being made on these routes and nearly one million of these trips have replaced a car journey.

John Grimshaw, Founder and Chief Executive of Sustrans, says, "We know from the National Cycle Network that traffic-free, dedicated walking and cycling routes are the most popular of all routes because they offer users a safe and attractive environment.

Getting more children walking and cycling to school is a key government objective

"We know how important this is for the school journey. Safety is a key concern for parents - the roads are busy and we don't want our children using them to walk and cycle to school. Survey after survey shows that what parents want is a safe route.

"This is what Links to Schools is all about - creating the environment that allows children the independence they crave and gives parents peace of mind."

Bristol-based Sustrans encourages school communities to travel sustainably - to use their cars less or not at all - and the charity runs a national schools information service aimed at schools, parents, pupils, local authorities and all those who are interested in school travel initiatives.

Additionally, they work closely with policymakers and the media to raise the profile of school travel issues and are committed to making a safe journey to school for every child in the UK. Their website - www.sustrans.org.uk - sets out the process of developing a School Travel Plan (STP). STPs are created in consultation with the whole school community and take account of current trends and each local situation, so one school's travel plan will be different from that of another.

The target is for all schools to have an STP by 2010 and there are School Travel Advisors in every local authority who can help schools write theirs. Funding has been available for local authorities to appoint School Travel Advisers (STAs) since April 2004 under the government's Travelling to School Initiative.

If a school writes a travel plan to the required criteria and it is approved by the STA, and meets government guidelines, then it is eligible for a travel plan grant of up to £5,000 for a primary school or 10,000 for a secondary. Schools may wish to spend their money on cycle storage facilities, a new school access, paths for pedestrians or an on-site shelter for waiting parents or pupils.

Children who walk or cycle are fitter, they have better social skills, they have better road sense and can better appreciate their surroundings

Albert Ward is the School Travel Plan Leader at Somerset County Council and he co-ordinates the work of the team of advisers.

"The problems faced by students on the journey to school vary by location," he says. "However, choice of school plays a big part in the way pupils travel. Generally, if pupils live more than 800m from a primary school (2km for secondary schools), they are likely to be driven to school.

"To date, the School Travel Plan Team have helped 169 schools to produce a travel plan and have helped schools receive grants of more than 750,000."

In the past three years, Bath and North East Somerset Council has allocated 500,000 for safer routes to school projects across the district. These include safety improvements at Whitchurch and Pensford where Peter Edwards is the ward councillor.

"Pensford Primary School is adjacent to the very busy A37 with a continuous stream of traffic and a high proportion of HGVs," says Peter. "We managed to get a 30mph speed warning sign at the top of Pensford Hill, which has slowed vehicles down, and flashing lights that indicate when the speed limit is 20mph."

A new puffin crossing has sensors that 'watch' the pedestrians, enabling them to cross without the need to hurry.

"Whitchurch is plagued with a high volume of traffic and we have an added problem in Maggs Lane, which is a rat run from the A37," explains Peter. "The pavement has been widened on the school access and barriers put in. The sequence of traffic lights has been adjusted to give parents additional time and a safe passage across the road, and a traffic-calming bump has been put into Maggs Lane to slow vehicles.

"We have also extended the double yellow lines outside Whitchurch School to stop drivers parking there.

"Both schools try to encourage walking to school but traffic is immense today. When I was young my parents didn't have a car and I had to walk to school with my gas mask round my neck. But those were bygone days."

GREENER, SAFER, CREATIVE ROUTES TO SCHOOL

• At the end of May, 40 schools from North Somerset took part in the national Walk to School Week. Many of them improved on their results from last year - including Flax Bourton Primary, where 70% of pupils took part, compared to 59% in 2007.

Last summer, a band of volunteers worked with Sustrans to build a new cycling and walking path through the village. They braved the changeable weather for a three-week summer work camp and created a 1.3-mile traffic-free route between Backwell Bow and Farleigh Green. The new path forms part of Route 33 on the National Cycle Network and enables people to cycle between Long Ashton and Nailsea without using busy main roads.

• Wyvern Community School in Weston-super-Mare celebrated National Bike Week with cycle training and new shelters following a jointly funded project with North Somerset Council and Sustrans. Alongside their Go-Ride cycle-training scheme, these new facilities are aiming to encourage students to opt for two wheels and use the improved paths at the front of the premises.

• The Safe Routes to School Visual Arts Project is a joint venture organised by Somerset Art Week, the Somerset Partnerships Art Education Agency and Somerset County Council's School Travel Plan Team.

The project involves Westcountry artists working with pupils to explore and express their experiences of the school journey with the aim of building a greater understanding of young people's needs and encouraging more walking and cycling, school bus use and car sharing.

One school pupil in Glastonbury said: "I've noticed more things on my journey. I enjoy walking and feel more awake when I get to school." BY SARAH FORD

Are you fed up with congestion at the school gates but struggle to find a safe route to school for your family? Canvas opinion and mobilise readers in your area to your cause on the Forum.

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