Is it safe to let our children walk to school?

A survey carried out by national charities Family Lives and Living Streets as part of national Walk to School Week has found that parents disproportionately fear their children being abducted or killed in a road accident over the more likely threat to their health from childhood obesity. Over a thousand parents of primary school aged children were asked what they fear most for their children (from a given list) and 30% stated abduction or murder, with only 5% revealing a fear for their child’s poor health in later life due to their child’s current level of physical activity.

Although there is about a one in a million chance of a child being killed by a stranger, the risk of severe health issues and early mortality as a result of the lack of physical activity is one in three. Family Lives and Living Streets are calling for a greater understanding of a child’s health needs as almost half of parents surveyed underestimated how much physical activity their child needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The Government recommends that children should have seven hours of physical activity per week , but in fact 68% of boys and 76% of girls are not currently meeting this recommendation. The call comes during national Walk to School Week, run by Living Streets, which sees thousands of children, parents and teachers leave the car keys at home and walk to school. The Walk to School Campaign is now more vital than ever as the number of children who walk to school regularly has reached an all time national low, with an enormous 43% of children now driven to the school gates.

Parents can help children walk to school safely by teaching them road safety skills as they walk them to school from a young age. This helps parents to identify when their children are ready to find their way to school safely by themselves, safely giving them independence.

Key findings from the survey include:

  • 60% of parents fear their child will be killed or injured in a road traffic accident or abduction or murder whereas only 5% ‘fear for their child’s poor health in later life due to their child’s current level of physical activity, from a given list.
  • Nearly half, 49% of parents under-estimated the amount of physical activity their children should get in a week. These results are based on a poll conducted by YouGov of 1244 parents of primary school aged children.

The two charities are calling on Government to ensure that policy interventions such as traffic calming measures are implemented to give parents the choice to walk to school with their child.

Recommendations include:

  • 20 mph to become the default speed limit wherever people live, work and play
  • Local Authorities to ensure safe, walkable routes to schools, through improved crossings, good lighting, and well maintained pavements and footpaths.
  • Adequately invest in effective walk to school promotion schemes, recognising that walking is the easiest and most effective way of getting children active.
  • Support and advice to parents to equip their children with appropriate road safety skills well before the transition to secondary school.
  • Areas with high childhood obesity levels should integrate walking to school as a central part of their health improvement strategies, linking to initiatives such as the National Child Measurement Programme and Child Health Systems Programme.

Jeremy Todd, Family Lives Chief Executive said: “The findings from the survey indicate that stranger danger and road traffic accidents are a real concern to some parents and carers of primary school children who choose to drive their children to school. We know that parents and carers face increasing demands on their time as they try to balance work and family life. For many families, this means both parents working, and for some it may mean working shift patterns or commuting long hours which will impact on walking their children to school.

"Whatever the barriers, we encourage parents and schools to look into alternatives to driving which may work for them, such as park and stride, walking buses or informal walking arrangements with friends, neighbours and older siblings. With the rising levels of obesity in children, we urge parents to consider whether walking to school could be a way to fit physical exercise into their child’s daily routine. If parents are concerned about the implications of supporting their child to walk to school, further information can be found on our website www.familylives.org.uk or our free 24 hour helpline can offer support and advice on 0808 800 2222.”

Tony Armstrong, Chief Executive of Living Streets said: “We are deeply concerned that the number of children walking to school has dropped to an all time low. It’s certainly not wrong for parents to fear road accidents or abduction, but it is wrong that fear for children’s health is put on the backburner especially when the statistics show that there is more chance that their children will suffer long-term health problems from obesity. 30% of our children are currently overweight or obese and if trends continue as predicted, we could be faced with a quarter of children being obese by 2050. Taking small steps such as increasing activity levels through walking to school is one way of reducing this risk. In the schools we work with we have seen an increase in walking levels.

“If changes are made locally to make our streets safer, we are confident that the number of families walking will increase. The introduction of 20 mph speed limits where we live, work and play, ensuring that streets are well maintained, clean and green, that crossings are sufficient and fit for purpose and streets are designed with people in mind are all vital factors in creating an environment where people want to walk.”

For more information about the Living Streets Walk to School Campaign, please visit www.walktoschool.org.uk Parents with questions or concerns about walking with, or allowing their primary school children to walk to school or the health implications, can call the free Family Lives 24 hour helpline, Parentline, on 0800 800 2222, or email parentsupport@familylives.org.uk for a personalised reply within 3 days. -ends- For media enquiries, case studies or a copy of the report, contact: Simon Walsh, Family Lives Press Office on 020 7284 5500 or simon.walsh@familylives.org.uk or Anna Powell, Living Streets Press Office on 020 7377 4914 or anna.powell@livingstreets.org.uk