A short news story on the BBC website caught my eye a few weeks ago. It was about a test involving three families from Sheffield. The aim was to see who inhaled the most pollution on the journey to school – those who walk, bike or travel by car. The result was counterintuitive. 'People believe that a car gives you protection from the environment outside. Quite the opposite is true,' commented Professor Sir David King, the former Government Chief Scientific Adviser.
He went on to describe cars as a 'toxic box' due to the fact that exhaust-polluted air comes in from outside and gets trapped in the vehicle. It's a sobering thought for any of us who assume that the insulated environment of a car would be best. Travelling by bike was better than walking, which I surmise is due to the reduced time exposed to pollution. Of course, for many of us, there doesn't seem much choice when it comes to how we journey to school. Geography, the frequency of public transport, safety and just basic logistics limit the choices – let alone the pressures of time in the morning. And this isn't helped by the extraordinary ability of children to make the simple process of putting on a coat and shoes into an excruciating piece of performance art.
But there is another issue at stake here which goes beyond the personal health effects: what is the environmental impact of using the car as opposed to public transport, walking or getting on a bike? Children are more aware of environmental issues than parents and old habits don't change easily. Yet whatever the circumstances, we can all do more to reduce our impact. Walking might not be a practical option for many but could the car be limited to just part of the journey? Or to days when the weather is particularly bad? It's complicated and would add enormously to the stresses and strains of the morning routine but, as parents, do we not have a duty to see if we can reduce our family footprint?
There has no doubt been a seismic shift in environmental awareness in recent months. Our news pages are full of stories from schools pursuing all manner of amazing environmental initiatives – and often pupil-led. On page 17 of this issue is an excellent article looking at sustainability. It explores the wide range of changes we can make to develop a more sustainable outlook. And many schools have well-established programmes already in place but there is one factor which limits their scope.
Whilst schools can champion new environmental initiatives, find me a Head happy to risk any upset by telling parents to stop using the car for the journey to school. Yet the wider environmental impact is the very area where our sector could really take a lead and I believe – and hopefully not naively – that most parents reading this would agree with the need to reduce our environmental footprint.
We live in a political and societal climate where the independent sector is under ever more scrutiny. It's time our schools were seen as beacons of environmental awareness and we need to play our part. We need to empower our schools to adopt policies and campaigns which have a meaningful impact across the school community and beyond. The results would be wide-ranging and might even mean our schools start being viewed in a new light. Rather than being vilified in parts of the press, the environmental credentials of our schools would be one area beyond reproach. To achieve this, the sector needs the confidence to lead by parents showing their willingness to be a key part of this process.
It's a New Year and without wishing to be in any way preachy, is it time to rethink using the car in the morning? Yes, on a cold, wet day you begin to question your sanity as you are drenched to the skin, cycling a bike through the streets or trying to keep an umbrella from turning inside out. But you don't have to read much about the climate crisis to realise we don't actually have a choice.