Eugene Suggett: make the school run the school walk

Obesity, the childhood sort, is up again. The 2012 Health Survey for England shows that 14% of children aged two to 15 are obese: that 28% are classed as “overweight or obese”; that those aged 11 to 15 are more likely to be obese, with one in five children placed in that category.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health estimates that the problem is costing the NHS around £5.1 billion a year, and the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) and 11 other organisations have lately written to England’s Chief Medical Officer calling for action. The RCGP said that “these kids are going to turn into larger and larger adults, which means they are at much higher risk of serious heart disease, cancers, and strokes, as they get older ... even more worrying is some of these children, children as young as seven, are developing the sort of diabetes associated with increased weight in middle age.”

Or to put it less clinically: they eat the wrong stuff, they don’t get out enough, and there’s less and less sport in schools and many of them don’t like it anyway. (And, though no expert in the teaching of physical education or any other subject, I doubt that one or two half-hour lessons of sport a week in a curriculum crammed with other things they have to do well in will ever fit the bill for lowering obesity figures.)

International Walk to School Day 2011
International Walk to School Day in 2011, New York

A couple of months ago, I went to a day’s workshop, hosted by Kent County Council, on sustainable transport for the next generation. Most workshops, conferences, courses and the like attended by this blogger have not many delegates below the age of about 30, and none below 20; but here at County Hall in Maidstone were 30 secondary-school pupils and as many again from a primary.

There were speakers from Holland (on “Dutch schoolmobility”), France (on hazardous locations near schools) as well as from Sustrans, Living Streets and elsewhere; and everybody there agreed that one major solution to the obesity problem is staring the nation in the face: to make it more and more possible for children to walk to school.

The children at this conference were all for it. The walk to and from school gives them time with their friends for one part of the day ungoverned by adults (“a sort of freedom”, said one girl about 15). A girl about 10 said to me that walking to school “means you’re awake when you get there”, and can concentrate better on your lessons, and, so, you might well “learn more and not end up with a rubbish job”.

Thousands of parents drive their children to school because of the danger when walking of their being hit by vehicles: but then, as a 14-year-old lad pointed out, so many of those vehicles belong to other parents driving their children to school for the same reason, and that the “safety” issue would be a whole sight better if none of them did.

An 11-year-old said it was hilarious to see many driving parents, living less than two miles from his primary school, circulating in their cars in the streets near the school dimly trying to find parking-spaces somewhere near it, parking at its gates being either forbidden or already taken by other parents. “It would be quicker to walk the whole way and not take the car at all, but they can’t see it,” said this lad. He explained that he and fellow-pupils had arranged with their headteacher for signs to be displayed in the local streets: “You are 5 minutes [or 10, 15, etc] walk from the school”, to try to get them to see sense.

The Holland delegate spoke of schemes in some Dutch primary schools for rewarding pupils with points for walking or cycling; an English sixteen-year-old girl however spoke of the impracticalities for cycling of the uniform skirts required at her school. Several secondary-school pupils spoke of the dangers of contending with a particular road with no pavement: “the drivers hoot at you just for being there.” The enthusiasm among pupils for walking and cycling to school was clear, as was the imaginative vision of the adults and groups who gave presentations.

Young family walking in East London
Walking in east London

Now I see that in response to the medics’ letter mentioned above, the Department of Health said that “tackling obesity is one of our major priorities, but there is no magic bullet to solve the problem, and everyone has a role to play”. I hope that “everyone” includes the Department for Transport (DfT), because if ever an issue called loudly for redress it is this issue of drivers who cannot comprehend that pedestrians sometimes have to walk on roads because not all roads have pavements. There is a right to walk on roads, and sometimes you have to: but the drivers just don’t get it.

A few years ago, The Times had a have-your-say piece about roads. “If you [as a pedestrian] are hit on the road, what on earth were you doing there?”, asked one (walking, I should think, like you have to, when there’s no pavement); “What are pedestrians doing on the road to be hit by a car at any speed?”, asked another, charmingly adding: “drivers hitting pedestrians on pavements, crossings, etc should be prosecuted; pedestrians being hit otherwise should be treated likewise, in the event of their survival.”

A spokesman for a well-known maker of cars said (well, they would) that “pedestrian protection is very important to us, but we also need to educate pedestrians not to be in the road in the first place.” If people articulate enough to be reported in The Times can’t understand the law, what a saturation of misunderstanding there must be among thousands of motorists on this point. Small wonder that people who try to walk on roads report intolerance and abuse from motorists. The DfT needs to do something quick if people like that are behind the wheel.

October is International Walk to School Month - find out more on twitter using the hashtag #walktoschool. Living Streets is running a campaign calling on government to make it easier and safer for children to walk to school. You can support their campaign by signing their petition.

Eugene Suggett is the Ramblers' senior policy officer.
Read all his blog posts.

Photo (top) New York City Department of Transportation