In recent years schools and government agencies have rightly worked hard to reduce the risks to children in school. Schools must be safe places and with very few exceptions they are.
Safer recruitment and vetting procedures enhanced after the tragedy of the Soham murders have reduced the risks of inappropriate adults being employed in schools. School laboratories are well run in accordance with rigorous Cleapss safety guidance, whilst school sport is regulated by professional sports associations who have safety as a top priority. School trips and activities are rightly subject to detailed risk assessments and conform to stringent legislation. The Health and Safety Executives and the various school inspectorates scrutinise safety regimes, and schools regularly emphasise the importance of safety procedures to teachers and pupils.
If schools have become safer places in recent years, what of the journey to and from school? Here the statistics are worrying and reveal a level of accidents that simply would not be tolerated in school. Every year around 500 children will be killed or seriously injured in cycle accidents, many travelling to or from school. 80% of those killed or seriously injured will be boys and the most likely time for an accident is between 8.00 and 9.00am, and 3.00 – 6.00pm. The casualty rate is highest in the autumn and winter, and cycling accidents in the dark are more likely to be fatal. Specific statistics on the number of school children killed or seriously injured cycling to and from school are hard to find, but the general data paints a clear and worrying picture.
The pedestrian fatality and injury data is similar, and although Britain does well compared to other OECD countries in terms of overall road deaths (fifth lowest from 25) we fare poorly when it comes to child pedestrian deaths.
Schools are well versed in risk assessments. We know how to use evidence to identify higher risk activities and what to do to reduce risks. Whilst this is true of activities within the school day and for school trips, our abilities to reduce the risks on the journey to and from school are limited.
At The Perse we do require all pupils to wear a cycle helmet, and to wear reflective clothing and gloves during the winter months. We insist on working cycle lights, and we provide advice on safer cycling. That does not mean that we have solved the problem and reduced the risks. If I had a pound for every pupil I saw carrying his or her cycle helmet rather than wearing it I would be a rich man.
To win this particular battle there needs to be a cultural change. Schools, parents, pupils and the government need to take the same approach to risk ‘en route’ to the school as they do to risk in school. This will involve educating children on how to be safe cyclists and pedestrians. It will require investment in safety clothing and helmets, and it will require adults to set a good example. We will need to remind boys in particular, that wearing safety gear does not make you invincible, and that cycle helmets are only designed for impacts up to 15 miles per hour.
We will also need to address the issue of ‘iPod’ oblivion that can affect student pedestrians/cyclists who listen to music whilst travelling to school. Children who deny themselves the sense of hearing whilst also being distracted by the music itself are putting themselves at risk. Some iPod wearing cyclists and pedestrians argue that they are no different to car drivers in not being able to hear potential dangers such as the reversing alarm on a lorry. However a lorry driver is more likely to see a car than a cyclist or a pedestrian, and the car itself will offer the driver some protection.
We need a serious debate about how we can make travelling to school as safe as being at school. The answer will probably lie in a mixture of compulsion (obligatory helmets, reflective jackets and lights), education (on what constitutes safe cycling/walking) and an end to iPod oblivion.
Generations of pupils have been taught to ‘stop, look, listen’ but the Green Cross Code doesn’t work when listening to Justin Bieber and not road traffic.