“Responses were heartening, the vast majority of parents supported increased active travel provision, even at the expense of car access“

Comment & Analysis: Have you ever wondered how does the Safe Routes to Schools process works? A teacher gives their experience and insight into the programme with the aim to have safer cycling and walking access to schools.

Our rural-based, 300 pupil school started our Safe Routes to School journey quite by accident, or fate, if that’s your thing. Having seen the initially press release via social media (my feed being dominated with active travel content), I lit the initial fire of interest with my Principal, who was happy to make the formal expression of interest needed to kickstart the application, especially given our school was just about to apply for our newest Green Flag, under the Travel theme.

Now, if I had missed the announcement, or if there was no such interested staff member in the school to get the initial application in, would we be where we are today? Unlikely.

There are some out there who wonder why some schools did not apply, despite a clear need for improved infrastructure. Was it a lack of interest? No staff member to push for it? Or simply did see the press release drop into the school office email like a hundred others that day and get lost in the sea of promos, competitions and schemes offered to schools for which many staff simply cannot find time for? Who knows.

For us, there was a lull once our application was submitted, then a congratulatory email some months later when we were selected as one of a handful in the county to benefit – perhaps our rural status stood to us, perhaps it was our proximity to the nearby village (~1km away). Either way, we gladly awaited further consultation.

The next step was a questionnaire designed by the SRTS team which was distributed to our parent body, asking what was needed to get more of our pupils walking, scooting and cycling to school.

The responses were heartening, as the vast majority of the parents supported increased provision for active travel, even at the expense of car access and parking. It was a learning moment for me, so used to the online strawman arguments generated by such proposed infrastructure. It turns out that when people have a vested interest (their kids getting to school safely), they’re happy to accept change.

Next, the results of this questionnaire were then used by SRTS to get the local council onboard to design the scheme. I was lucky enough to be present at both initial design meetings on-site, along with our Board of Management and Parents’ Association representatives, and the energy from the SRTS co-ordinator was palpable, particularly when working with a local council who had been until now reluctant to provide a safe crossing for kids, citing “funding issues”.

These initial on-site meetings fed into the final design, which was to include footpath improvements, raised crossings, and redesign of the front of the school. Given the scale of the works needed, it was divided into two phases: the improvement of permeability and pedestrian safety within the local village all the way to the school road, and the second phase, to include a safe crossing at junction approaching school from the village, a footpath of around 100m in length where currently there is none, leading right to the gate of the school.

The removal of parking opportunities for parents at the gate is also part of this phase, in order to install said footpath and to stop the dangerous practice of children dodging moving cars to access the school gate.

This, of course, all takes time, and with Phase 1 already underway and works commenced, the hope is that our staff and pupils’ journey to school will be a happier, safer and healthier one by September 2023.

For us as a school community, the consultation with SRTS from the start has been positive and productive. All stakeholders were involved, and best practice in active travel design has been used. I was impressed by the individuals involved when I met them in person, and I have full faith that they will deliver on their design.

I know there are numerous schools now chomping at the bit to get into the next round of funding, to be released once us and the other schools involved in the first round are provided for. If there was any drawback to the scheme, it’s this. Any delay in the implementation of the initial round of funding means those schools next in line are waiting longer and their pupils are left in danger on their active travel commutes.

Ideally, a national walkability audit of all primary and secondary schools should be undertaken, whereby at each school the inhibitors to active travel in each place are noted, funded and sorted. It would then not be up to an individual staff member to spot a press release in order for a school community to be facilitated in increased active travel provision.

The teacher who wrote this article wished to remain anonymous.

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