Jayne Dowle: Don’t turn the school run into a guilt trip

I MAY have missed this story. It’s the one where transport campaigners urge businessmen to leave their BMWs at home and walk to meetings instead. Have you seen it? If so, could you forward it to me please? I’m not holding my breath. It’s one of those stories we never read. Yet again though, parents are being told to leave their cars at home and walk or cycle to school with their children.

This time it’s the transport charity Sustrans pointing out the benefits. Apparently, we parents could save a collective £2bn a year – or £642 a year each – if we didn’t drive our children about. Actually, the words I’m reading here are “ferry their offspring to and from school”.

To me, those words conjure up the image of a young prince or princess riding around in regal splendour. As anyone who has ever done the school run will know, the reality is very different. It’s a battle of wills to get the children into the car in the first place. It’s a challenge of organisation rivalling an Arctic expedition to remember every bit of PE kit, dinner money, homework and essential items such as skipping ropes and World Cup stickers to swap at morning break.

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The chauffeur, sorry, the harassed and stressed-out parent, is desperately watching the clock and calculating the time/petrol/roadworks ratio of getting to work to earn money to keep the whole show on the road. It’s hardly a self-indulgent leisurely trip to Disneyland. Some mornings, it’s hell on wheels.

In an ideal world of course, we would all be trotting down the road with our children enjoying the fresh air and observing nature as we go. As most parents will tell you though, their world is far from ideal. We all have to compromise. And we have to get our children from school safely and be there to pick them up at the end of the day.

I deeply resent being told how to do this by campaigners who have no idea whatsoever about the mechanics of my daily life. I have one child at primary school a 15-minute walk away and one at secondary school a further 10 minutes away. I am in sole charge of getting them to school. What do I do?

Set off at 7.30am and spend the next hour and a half walking around Barnsley with them both just to appease the likes of Sustrans? Leave the youngest – who is eight – home alone while I take the eldest? Or put them in the car and drop them both off and be back home and at my desk in 15 minutes, therefore saving the taxpayer the burden of having to bring up my children on benefits?

And for the record, my youngest is begging to be allowed to walk to and from school on her own already. In my view though, she’s not quite old enough. And my eldest, who only started at secondary school this year, found it difficult to settle in at first. When I was his age and being bullied, the trip to and from school was the worst bit of all.

The last thing I want is to throw him out every morning and leave him to his own devices. I need to know he is safe and happy, ready to start his school day feeling secure. Indulgent? Perhaps. I’m his mother though. I reserve the right to do what I think is best for the happiness of my child. When he feels ready to get there and back under his own steam, I will let him. Until then, it’s my responsibility.

I do buy the argument that walking and cycling helps keep our children fit. On the occasions where the schedule allows I enjoy taking the opportunity to walk with them because it keeps me fit too. However, I think it’s morally wrong to link the fight against obesity with driving to school, as Sustrans does. It pulls out the statistic that 28 per cent of under-16s are now classed as obese. We know that. And aren’t parents under enough pressure already? Let’s not forget that there are many causes of obesity – junk food being a major factor.

When it comes down to it, some people just won’t be happy until parents are banned from driving. I’ve seen the look in other motorists’ eyes. And that look says that mothers simply shouldn’t be doing it. They should be at home baking cookies and doing the washing on a scrubbing board on the sink. This resentment lies at the heart of the anti-car brigade’s obsession with getting us from behind the wheel.

The school run is part of daily life. It’s not a political or a moral issue. It’s a practical solution which gets everyone where they need to be. It’s what parents who care do for their children. It shouldn’t be a guilt trip.