Air pollution is making our children ill. It’s shortening their lives. It’s even killing them. And yet we continue to let cars pump out toxins at the school gates regardless. Government might sneer at children striking over global warming, but give them a voice and we might actually achieve change. At Russell Scott primary school in Denton, Tameside, in Greater Manchester, we are trying to do our bit to show that communities can help solve their own problems by taking direct action and involving children.
With the M60 and M67 motorways on our doorstep, and a major retail park with its associated traffic right next door, our children walk along very congested, polluted roads every day. These are the same roads that have been branded a “public health crisis” due to the harmful levels of nitrogen dioxide we are breathing in as we walk to school. This is only exacerbated by the parents who selfishly insist on parking as close to the school gates as they possibly can – competing for the best position, whether it be on double yellow lines, the school entrance or over pedestrian-dropped kerbs, because it’s more convenient for them.
Episodes of Wacky Racers have been re-enacted at drop-off and pick-up times around schools up and down the country for years. It’s endangering our children. All schools seem to have the same problems, and Russell Scott was no different. But it was the danger of vehicle emissions that drove us to do something about inconsiderate parking, and the use of cars around the school.
We began our campaign by holding an open meeting after school, to which we invited the parents, the community police officer and highways engineers. We suggested freshening up road markings and encouraging motorists to turn off their idling engines, and parents took the lead in asking traffic enforcement to crack down on the hazardous parking around the school. At the same time, all the children were spoken to in assembly by a traffic officer, police officer and the council’s lead on clean air and pollution. The children were briefed on the danger of leaving engines running. This was pester power put to good use, as they began nagging their own parents to shut down their engines well before the campaign had even begun. Education or embarrassment, we don’t mind – as long as it’s successful.
The children’s understanding and engagement was the key to our success; but equally important was educating the wider school community on the dangers to the children from car emissions. The UK has some of the worst death rates from asthma in Europe, with doctors shocked at the number of children ending up in hospital apparently as a result of air pollution. It is imperative for the health of the nation that we all take action.
On that first morning, our police officer, a police community support officer and traffic enforcement accompanied the children out on to the streets outside school. It needs commitment each morning and afternoon from senior members of staff to build up the rapport with the parents, to keep it lighthearted. The majority of parents are on your side, they certainly don’t want to be part of the problem. With the children keen to offer advice in a charming and mature way, the parents listened and engaged.
And it worked. The vast majority of parents listened to their children with good grace, and turned off their engines or moved away from the front of school. Within a few days, the streets around school were free from parked cars, with the majority of families now choosing to walk to school. After a few weeks, the need for enforcement tickets was few and far between, so we swapped them with “Thank you” stickers for walking to school.
The reason this worked was because the school and the community was at the centre of the campaign: we started it. And it was an appeal directly to the cause of the problem – the parents. I don’t think the council or police would have had anywhere near the impact we did had they gone down a formal enforcement route. It was education and engagement that won the day – perfectly apt coming from a school. Russell Scott has since helped Tameside council to create a pilot scheme at three other primary schools, which began during Road Safety Week. If it works, it will be rolled out to other schools across the borough. I hope many other schools in other cities, even other countries, will follow our lead and help end this problem for generations to come.
• Steve Marsland is the headteacher of Russell Scott primary school