Page last updated at 16:08 GMT, Thursday, 7 June 2007 17:08 UK

When should children walk alone?

By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website

Parents and children walking to school
Legal complications may arise if schools intervene

Children are encouraged to walk to school. But - on their own? At what age?

The issue overlaps with the way schools increasingly seek - or feel obliged - to oversee pupils even outside their gates.

When Keren Townsend sent her son off to school on his own at the age of six, she said the head teacher contacted her to tell her not to do it again.

"It's less than a mile, with no major roads, and a well-used route by many other pupils from his own school and others," she said.

"I was phoned by the school and told it was not allowed.

"The next time I did so, I was informed that I must send him in a taxi next time I was unable to accompany him."

Accompanied

The head teacher of the school, in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, Peter Turner, said the boy had to cross five or six roads on his walk, some of which were quite busy.

He had heard from other parents and pupils that the boy had been crying on the way to school, worried about being unable to cross safely.

Mrs Townsend says she knew nothing of this and, on the contrary, her son was disappointed at being told he could not go on his own.

Mr Turner says he suggested the taxi as an option used occasionally by other parents.

Mr Turner said: "Some six-year-old children living close to a school with safe pedestrian routes would be quite capable of walking unaccompanied.

"Others would not by the nature of their personality. Each case is unique."

But Mrs Townsend says the head told her he did not consider any child of that age capable of coming to school alone.

Provided they are satisfied that the children are mature enough to do it, we would encourage it
Andrew Fielding
Walk to School campaign
The local authority, North Somerset Council, happens to be running a "jam-busting June" campaign to try to curb car use and generally encourages walking to school.

School travel adviser for the council Kate Cochrane said: "The way we have handled it is that primary school children should be accompanied or go in groups, but the responsibility stays with the parents."

That could mean groups of friends walking together, not necessarily with parental supervision.

Some schools have organised official "walking buses" and at others there are informal arrangements between parents.

But the authority has tended to take the view that the school's responsibility ends at its gates.

Two miles

The national Walk to School campaign also takes the view that it is down to parents to judge when their children are ready to step out alone.

"Provided they are satisfied that the children are mature enough to do it, we would encourage it because it develops independence," said campaign co-ordinator Andrew Fielding.

"But the parent and the child have to be ready," he said - and crucially the child had to want to do it.

The government says children under the age of eight should walk up to two miles before qualifying for school transport.

"This is measured by the shortest route which a child may walk with reasonable safety," says the Department for Education and Skills.

But its guidance is silent on whether they should do so on their own.

Extension of powers

Questions are being asked about the potential implications of new powers given to schools in the 2006 Education and Inspections Act.

These were intended to clarify the powers of school staff to discipline pupils for misbehaviour on and off school premises, for example on a school bus.

Mr Fielding says the question that arises is: does this mean staff also have rights and responsibilities over pupils' welfare outside school?

If a school insists on a child being transported to school - in a taxi, say - then is the school responsible if something goes wrong?

The issue is a sensitive one in North Somerset because, elsewhere in the district, a father is claiming that a car accident outside a school, while collecting a child, is the school's responsibility.

Choice

The government's school travel adviser for the south-west of England, Andrew Combes, said the statutory distances of two miles for under-eights - and three miles for older children - were, in practice, out of date.

In his own authority, Somerset County Council, extensive data collected by schools on how their pupils travelled gave the lie to the tabloid stereotype of "lazy mums in 4x4s".

"Actually people who live close enough do walk," he said.

But the limits they would tolerate were about 800m (half a mile) for primary schools, 1,600m (about a mile) for middle schools and 2km (1.25 miles) for secondary schools.

Mr Combes said the wider issue was parental choice: parents tended to choose schools that were further from their homes than they or their children were prepared to walk.

"They will be responsible for the impact that has on the climate and congestion, and on the personal development, road safety skills, health, et cetera of their child," he said.



SEE ALSO
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05 Jun 07 |  Education
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02 Aug 01 |  Education

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