Why kids should miss the ‘walking bus’

Will the UK scheme to walk a crocodile of children to school give them independence - or simply embarrass them?

Jonathan Calder

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Topics Politics

One of the humiliations we used to inflict upon children living in public institutions was to dress them in distinctive clothing and march them to school in a crocodile. But before you congratulate yourself for living at a time when such cruelty is no longer practised, take note: a remarkably similar practice, known as the ‘walking bus’, is gaining popularity.

A walking bus scheme is where children do not make their own way to school and neither are they driven by their parents. Instead, they are walked to school in a group under the supervision of volunteer adult escorts. Usually there will be an adult ‘driver’ walking at the front of the line and an adult ‘conductor’ at the back – with both adults and children wearing high-visibility jackets. Children can join the crocodile only at specified points, and at the end of the school day the ‘bus’ drops them back at the same stops, where they are collected by their parents.

Walking bus schemes have developed following concern over the number of children being driven to school. In the UK in 1971, 80 percent of eight-year-olds travelled to school by themselves – by 1990 the figure was just nine percent. There are many good reasons for reversing this trend – including resolving some of the traffic problems that often accompany the beginning and end of the school day. At Sandringham School in St Albans, which has its own walking bus, the percentage of pupils being driven to school fell from 40 to 28.

Other concerns over the high number of children being driven to school include children’s fitness and the ‘jumpers for goalposts’ nostalgia for the days when children had more freedom. But walking buses are not about encouraging independence. In Chicago, where 90 percent of children walk to school, the authorities still encourage walking buses and list as one of their advantages ‘a consistent, supervised system in which children can walk under the watchful eye of an adult’.

Some stress the value of the walking bus in teaching children about road safety – but in fact its advocates tend to lump all primary-school pupils together, as though the level of supervision required by a seven-year-old is also suitable at 11. You don’t have to be very old to remember the days when older primary-school children would have died of embarrassment if they had been thought incapable of making their own way home.

The walking bus is just as much about controlling parents as it is about controlling children. At Minster on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent the scheme’s publicity says, ‘If parents get to a stop before the bus arrives they must wait with their child until the bus arrives. If they miss the bus they have to walk their child to school’.

Suddenly, what used to be a mundane task – deciding how our children get to school – has become the focus of concern for a whole range of professionals. So at Horndean Community School in Hampshire there is a ‘safe routes to school’ committee, chaired by a representative from the sustainable transport charity Sustrans and including pupils, teachers, governors, parents and the parish, district and county councils.

The then UK Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) published ‘School Travel Strategies and Plans: A Best Practice Guide for Local Authorities’ in 1999, suggesting that the police and local businesses should also get involved. And companies have not been slow to exploit the sponsorship opportunities of the buses’ reflective clothing.

The DETR guide makes getting to school sound like a combination of a product launch and the Normandy landings – claiming that ‘by working through strategy discussion, plan objectives, implementation, monitoring and review, [the document] provides a step-by-step guide to successful preparation and delivery’. Just as well the department is offering to fund five days of consultancy if a school wants to develop such a strategy.

The walking bus scheme makes a spectacle of its children being supervised, almost celebrating how in tune with our times the scheme is in restricting children’s freedom in the name of safety. Children are losing even that narrow strip of liberty between home and school and the small pleasures involved, like calling for friends.

At the same time, parents find their authority dwindling as they become just one more interest group to be consulted about their children’s lives. To those busy with planning strategies and objectives, consulting parents might look like a very democratic thing to do. To the rest of us, it should seem an act of extreme condescension.

Jonathan Calder is parliamentary sketchwriter for Liberal Democrat News.

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Topics Politics