Letting their kids cycle?! Report them to social services!

The Telegraph reports the following:

A couple have been warned they could be reported to social services unless they stop their young children cycling to school on their own.

Oliver and Gillian Schonrock let their daughter, eight, and son, five, cycle a mile unsupervised from their home in Dulwich, south London, to Alleyn’s junior school.
They believe cycling to school is good for their children’s independence and self-confidence. But other parents and the headmaster have said it is irresponsible.
The children’s route takes them along a pavement beside roads busy with traffic on the school run. At about the halfway mark they cross a relatively busy road where a lollipop lady is on duty. On the return journey they are supervised by one of the parents or their nanny.
Mrs Schonrock said she was “confident that the benefits to our children far outweigh the potential risk from `stranger danger’, road traffic accidents and other factors.”
Mark O’Donnell, headmaster of Alleyn’s junior school, could not be contacted yesterday. But he told a Sunday newspaper that the school was under an obligation to consider the children’s safety.
“If a school feels a child in their care is at risk, they have a legal responsibility to notify the local authority,” he said.
“Is an eight-year-old responsible enough to come to school with a five-year-old and take responsibility when it comes to crossing busy roads? Or what would happen if the five-year-old has a tantrum?”

What is most disturbing about this article?  That children cycling and making their own way has become so rare as to become strange?  Or, that the powers that be (those 'other parents and headmaster') think the children should stop what they are doing because they think it is dangerous, rather than addressing the source of the danger itself (which is, more than likely, these other parents driving their kids to school themselves)?
Won't someone just think of the children?!  Quick, report this reckless mother to social services!
I don't know this school and I'm sure that the 8.30AM crush to get to class is quite hairy at times - sadly, these days, most schools in the UK are.  But encouraging these kids to stop riding their bikes and to join the melee is not going to make the situation any better.  And as their mother (and more kudos to her by the way) points out, the wee ones cycle on the pavement, cross the road under the care of a Lollipop lady ('cos that's what she's there for, right?) and that the benefits to her children far, far outweigh any potential negatives.  The result? She might be reported to social services, whilst those who create the source of the danger are entirely overlooked.
If we are truly supposed to be fostering a change in cycling culture here in the UK, and we don't want our next generation to grow up to be obese, riddled with chronic diseases, car dependent and at serious risk from car danger (for that is what is at stake here) surely it would be better for the headmaster, instead of reporting the poor parents to social services, doing something proactive about the road he thinks is so dangerous outside his school?  Proof, if ever it were needed, that whilst conditions may be getting better for cyclists in London the actual riding of a bike is still not seen as an everyday or ordinary activity.  Promoting dangerous behaviour at the expense of a minority who are 'doing the right thing'; it's what Mikael from Copenhagenize would call 'ignoring the bull'.
There is of course a simple, effective solution to this problem; do as the Dutch do and ban cars from schools all together.  We know that walking and cycling are better for kids than being driven, so why not?  It would be a brave politician indeed who proposed such a move in the UK but I cannot think of a single reason why children in central London would need to attend school by car, and a 1000 reasons why they should not.  If every school had good quality secure cycle parking, free cycle training for it's pupils and decent cycle paths leading to and from it, within just a few short years the situation on the ground would be very different.  I've said here before why we need more bikes with baby on board.  Rather than being extraordinary, Mr and Mrs Schonrock's children would be the norm, like in the video of cycling to school in Holland, from David Hembrow, below. 
The problems associated with driving kids to and from school have been discussed in this country for very many years; indeed the situation has become so bad that parents who do send their kids to school by bike are clearly seen as irresponsible.  We can keep 'ignoring the bull', or we can look to the countries that have success in changing the status quo and follow their lead... Which is it going to be? Which should it be?  We can't keep talking and ignoring the sad status quo for ever...

**Blog update: 5th July 2010, 11.25AM**

The Daily Mail is also covering this story here, and includes a poll of it's readers as to whether they would allow their children to ride to school or not, sadly it's fairly evenly split down the middle, as are the comments from readers.

London's Mayor, Boris Johnson, has also jumped on the story with his column in the Sunday Telegraph: "They [Mr and Mrs Schonrock] have taken the sword of common sense to the great bloated encephalopathic sacred cow of elf and safety. And for this effrontery they are, of course, being persecuted by the authorities... " Strangely, he then manages to turn the story into a promo piece about his efforts at City Hall to combat gang violence; not something I'm sure really effects privately educated 8 year olds in well to do suburban Dulwhich, but still...

**Blog update: 5th July 2010, 3.18PM**

School Travel Director, Paul Osborne, from the national sustainable transport charity 'Sustrans' writes:

“Parents have the right to decide how their children travel to school; they know the capabilities of their children and should be allowed to act accordingly. If others are unwilling to let their children walk or cycle, our streets clearly need to be made safer.

“The government is rightly concerned about the rise in obesity, traffic congestion, pollution and the stifled lifestyles of children; children should be encouraged to cycle to school, not prohibited.

“Half of all children want to cycle to school but just two per cent do. A third of children are now driven to school, many for journeys of less than one mile.

“Sustrans works with schools, pupils and parents to encourage children to walk and cycle, especially for journeys up to three miles, as the majority of children do in many northern European countries. To do this, all children need: safe routes to schools; to experience up to date on-road cycle and pedestrian training, and 20mph speed limits on all our residential roads. Our experience of doubling cycling in the schools that we work with shows that it is possible to encourage children to become more active, confident and independent.

“Sustrans wants every child and young person to have the knowledge, skills and confidence to establish the habit of travel by foot and bike early in life.”
..or in other word, it's possible to change for the better, so why not? We have nothing to loose but our 4x4s.


oana said...

ok, what the school did is a bit over the top.. but come on... not even in denmark or the netherlands I don't think you see unattended 5 year olds riding to school.. be reasonable. all the small kids in that video were with someone.

you make drivers sound like insane people that should not be aloud to be on the streets... get over it, seriously. I bike, drive, walk and take the bus in almost equal measure where I live. do my principles change every time I change transportation? do I act different? am I another person? try and be more objective and stop with the hatred, drivers are people too, man :-)

oana said...


Dan B said...

If only Boris could stick to topic ...

This is what kids should be doing, and we wail and gnash our teeth about it. It stinks to say "when I was a kid" but I cycled for miles unaccompanied as an 8-year-old, never challenged, never scolded, and I was always home for dinner.

oana - I, too, use all forms of transport. But stick anyone behind the wheel, and they automatically lose 50 IQ points. I know: it happens to me. So I leave the car at home and cycle to work. I would prefer to pedestrianise my child's way to school. I think that's fair.

ibikelondon said...

But Oana, what kind of world are we creating if this is the response to something so normal as walking or cycling down the road? I used to walk to school by myself at this age when I was growing up, as did most other kids. Yes, there are dangers involved (as with everything we do in life) but it's by assessing and stepping over those dangers that we become strong adults in later life.

I don't hate cars, or drivers. I can drive, cycle, walk, or use PT just as you do. I don't think drivers are insane. However, what I do think is insane is doing something bad over and over again blindly and expecting a different outcome. That is true madness. We KNOW that kids not getting enough exercise is bad for them, we KNOW that illegally parked cars outside schools is an anti-social problem, we KNOW that too many cars being used for unnecessary trips are a danger to pedestrians and cyclists, the environment etc etc and yet we keep doing it over and over. I call this behaviour out not to classify car drivers as the enemy (for I am one myself, remember) but to encourage people to use their cars consciously and with thought.

What would you rather, that we just ignored it all? That, I think, is the sort of attitude we should *really* be getting over...

Mike Smith said...

I wish I could have cycled to school as a child. My secondary school was 3 miles away - quite a long walk twice a day, but an easy cycle. Unfortunately the roads were almost all 40 mph. Often the police used a speed trap to catch motorists doing more (they caught a lot). Oddly my parents complained about the speed trap, even though this was the road their son had to walk along. I wasn't allowed to cycle (too dangerous!)... so ended up being taken to school every morning - which must have been a hassle for my parents too. It seems the solutions were so simple! An offroad bike path could easily have been built as it was semi-rural/suburbia, with plenty of space...

anna said...

I quite like the line "busy with traffic on the school run". I'm sure it's the people complaining about others kids safety that are a danger to the very same. But they are, on the other hand, grown up. And one would assume that they can handle traffic (after all the went to driving school).

Well, enough absurdness. Even in Vienna I do not see many schoolchildren cycling. And there are basically also none whose parents are and guide them to school.

It's very different from my observations in India. In the morning one could see cycling schoolchildren everywhere. And traffic there is by far way more dangerous than anywhere in Europe...

christhebull said...

@anna - I fear that as the developing world becomes more developed, not only will the locals aspire to an American lifestyle (ie a car), but they will also regard the bicycle as a symbol of their past, like an outside toilet, rather than a solution to chronic traffic congestion and pollution. How long until Delhi is like Beijing is today - it only took 20 years for cars to supplant bicycles.

oana said...

@mark- that's all true. I just think that we should try to cut back on showing the negative parts of the "other side" and to keep advocating for ours. that's why I like your blog- 101 reasons to love cycling and youbikelondon are great examples of the way I think we should look at this debate:-)

same goes for how cyclist that prefer to wear a helmet are criticized over and over again by some communities. instead of appreciating the fact that they choose to bike, especially in cities where the number of cyclists is not that high, they are seen as a somewhat negative example..

Adam said...

Please can the Sustrans comments be redone in a readable colour? Black on black is not very good on my work PC.

As regards the school run, in Herts the SMOTS study the county did found the 2 preferred ways kids want to get to school is their bikes or by train. They don't like buses as bullies have a place to operate in. See http://www.hertsdirect.org/envroads/roadstrans/transplan/travelwise/schooltravel/smots/

The main barrier then is parents perception of safety and lack of cycle paths. My daughter's school has cycle paths and a regular 130 kids cycling in each day. The racks are full. So if anyone wants a model to see, Stanborough School Welwyn Garden City could be it. Other local schools without cycle paths to the front door do less well.

Of course we are lucky in having space for the cycle paths in our towns, as they are mostly new postwar build. The down side is Herts CC spend about 10% of what London gets.



Anonymous said...

I hate it when people who lost their common sense tell others what to do. Dutch and German readers will probably lough out loud when they read this story. I’m seeing unsupervised children frequently.


sheffield cycle chic said...

Unfortunately, this is merely a symptom of how it is impossible to make any sensible decisions as a parent these days without being criticised for not cow towing to the "culture of fear" which insists that kids are either confined to metal boxes or plugged into the tv/computer at all times in case they have an accident. As a parent who was recently the recipient of a visit from social services, it is fairly clear to me that schools are way too quick to rope in social services for the slightest thing. In my case, a tearful child, fed up with several months of falling out with his friends and having a bad day, breaks down, becomes hysterical and talks jibberish. School puts two and two together and makes 22! Messy hair, scruffy clothes, the child is clearly neglected (when in the history of the world has an 11 year old boy managed to look presentable for more than 5 minutes after leaving the house?) Attendance record down to 94% (apparently children aren't allowed to be ill- ever) clearly parents don't take education seriously. Do they call the parents to have a quick chat - no they phone social services and waste their precious time.

My 11 year old cycles to school on his own, my 5 year old would be perfectly capable if she didn't have so many roads to cross, so she has to be accompanied. They both cycle on the pavement as all the roads near school are clogged with what at their school is a fairly small proportion of parents who drive - a huge number of whom are taxi drivers and assume that double yellow lines and hazard markings don't apply to them. It is quite amusing when the police turn up on their mountain bikes and move them on though!

Anonymous said...

I do find it amusing that people who say the streets aren't safe for kids are indeed the people that drive their kids to school in a 4x4 then when leaving to go home tear past me and way above the legal speed limit as I cycle home after my 5 year old has cycled to school with me.

"Oh I'm in a rush to get to work"

Totally agree with Mark, what kind of world are we creating. We all seem to happy to sit back and say that it's fine and acceptable that a 5 year old can't cycle to school. We should be angry because society can't protect the weakest and support sustainable living.

Andy in Germany said...

@nico Yes I did laugh, but then realised how sad it is.

What I don't understand is that the school presumes to have so much power over people, and is so quick to try and bully people into submission, and why everyone says it's 'Dangerous' without actually looking at the source of the danger.

At what point did the right of motor vehicle users to use roads as a cut through or just to drive faster override the rights of children to use a bike? Surely we should be criticising people who drive 1 ton boxes through red´sidential areas at speed?

Either way, I'm glad we moved here ten years ago: kids walk to school from age six, and can cycle after they take a proficiency test.

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