Alistair Goulding explores the background to, and benefits of, Sustrans’ work in schools over the past 20 years.  This started with the Safe Routes to Schools scheme and Sustrans works with over 10% of UK schools.  This is an extract from Alistair’s article which first appeared in NAEE’s journal Environmental Education [ Vol 107 ], which members received earlier this year.

Background

Sustrans has had a dedicated team for working in education and with young people since 1995. We started with our Safe Routes to Schools (SRS) project based on initiatives in Denmark which had delivered Europe’s highest cycling to school rates, whilst dramatically lowering child road casualties.

Two officers each worked with 10 schools in York and Hampshire to help them increase walking and cycling to school, using a mix of behavioural and infrastructure changes in conjunction with the local authorities. The success of these pilots led to an SRS information service which helped support schools throughout the country, running events, providing resources and working with both local and national government.

Thanks to this work, the Education and Transport departments funded School Travel Advisors in every English local authority and provided grants to schools who wrote travel plans which could be spent on supporting measures such as cycle storage. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also introduced officers and their own school travel funding and initiatives.

In 2004, Sustrans was looking to evolve its work with children by embedding officers in schools for a year, to bring about profound change and instill a pro-cycling culture. And so our Bike It project was born, funded by the creation of Bike Hub, a levy on sales by bike manufacturers and independent bike retailers.

We started with just four officers, who typically quadrupled the number of children cycling regularly to schools they worked with. A decade on, over half a million children have benefited and we have over 150 officers in what is now our Education and Young People team.

Our work with young people is currently funded by various partners at both national and local level, and we work to promote walking, scooting and public transport in addition to cycling. Our officers give pupils the skills and confidence to travel under their own steam and their parents the confidence to let them. We create an active travel culture in the school community, with far-reaching benefits for health, emotional wellbeing, independence and social development.

These partnerships have established beyond doubt that when you work well with the willing and you invest in the right way, you can bring profound change. We have created a love of active travel in young people that will set them up for life.

Benefits

By the end of 2013/14 we were working with one in 10 schools across the UK. This provides a huge range of benefits for the pupils, their families, the school and the local community through healthier, happier young people and reduced congestion.

For example, in the schools we work with:

  • there was a 6% reduction in car use
  • twice as many children cycled regularly as before our intervention

It isn’t just behaviour changes that are important; infrastructure – such as traffic-free paths, new crossings, cycle and scooter storage – is needed to complement it. In 2013, for example, children made 110 million trips on Sustrans’ National Cycle Network, and through our Links to Schools programme we made it easier for pupils to get from their homes and schools to existing local cycle and walking routes.

We know that physical activity is critical for our young people’s health and wellbeing, and active travel is an easy way to incorporate a significant amount of the one hour (or more) a day recommended by the UK nations’ Chief Medical Officers.

Worryingly, round 20% of our school-age children are classified as obese and most aren’t getting even this minimum one hour of activity. Yet a 15- minute walk or cycle ride to school and home again would make up half of that (the average distance of a journey to primary school takes about 20 minutes to walk at a typical pace, and to secondary school about 15 minutes of moderate cycling).

Mental health often improves too. Research shows that even 15 minutes of activity can lead to significant increases in positive moods (and decreases in negative moods) amongst younger children. It can improve their control over anxiety and depression, and multiple studies demonstrate physical activity is positively related to academic performance (Singh et al, 2012 Physical Activity and Performance at School).

There is a social benefit too. Where Sustrans works, we often see parents and siblings become more active. Research also indicates that children who travel actively to school have wide social networks and are more actively engaged with their community than those who travel by car, whilst independently negotiating the school journey is thought to develop children’s responsibility, decision making, and time- and risk-management skills.

It is not unusual for our officers to find that pupils who were previously difficult to engage take to cycling or scooting with enthusiasm, displaying talents not exhibited in the classroom as they partake in active travel clubs, or even give presentations to the rest of the school. Punctuality often increases when regular breakfast bike clubs or events are organised.

The benefits of active travel are simply too many to convey even in an in-depth article such as this –if you would like to learn more, our ‘Benefits of active travel for young people’ information sheet has everything you need to know, with references for all the research. Just visit the ‘Help yourself’ section of the Sustrans website.

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The full version of this article was first published in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 107). To read the rest of this article, and ones like it, please join the Association and receive three journals a year.