Couple face trouble for letting kids cycle to school

Irresponsible parents or nanny state nonsense?

by Martin Thomas   July 5, 2010  

Kid on a bike (Creative Commons Werner100359)

A London couple who let their children cycle to school by themselves have been warned they could be reported to social services unless they supervise the journey.

An article in today’s Daily Mail highlights the case of Oliver and Gillian Schonrock, who let their five year-old son and eight year-old daughter cycle the one-mile trip to school unaccompanied. They say it helps to teach the kids independence, self-confidence and responsibility.

But other parents and teachers at Alleyn's Junior School in Dulwich are said to think the practice is irresponsible and dangerous. Head teacher Mark O'Donnell has told the Schonrocks that the school is obliged to consider the children's safety and has a legal responsibility to refer the case to Southwark Council's Children's Services department if they fear the kids are being put at risk.

Mr Schonrock, 40, the managing director of an e-commerce company, said: “Like everybody else our age we spent a lot more time with our friends playing in the streets or parks without parental supervision and without our parents becoming unduly worried. These days children live such regimented lives. They can do nothing unless it's planned. We are trying to let them enjoy their lives and teach them a little bit about the risks of life.”

The children cycle on the pavement from their home in west Dulwich to the school. Their route takes them alongside roads that become busy with traffic during the school run. At the halfway point they cross a road where there is a lollipop lady on duty.

Mark O'Donnell said: “If a school feels a child in their care is at risk, they have a legal responsibility to notify the local authority. Is an eight year old responsible enough to come to school with a five year old and take responsibility when it comes to crossing busy roads? Or what would happen if the five year old has a tantrum?”

The Schonrocks say rules on child protection are to blame for the predicament they find themselves in. Mrs Schonrock, who as a girl took the bus to school from the age of four with her six year-old sister, said: “The question is do the government have the right to put an obligation on schools to not allow any level of risk whatsoever?”

London Mayor Boris Johnson today said the Schonrock's should be applauded for showing faith in their children. In a column in the Daily Telegraph he said: “They have taken the sword of common sense to the great bloated encephalopathic sacred cow of elf and safety, and for this effrontery they are, of course, being persecuted by the authorities.

“If Mr and Mrs Schonrock have carefully assessed the route and considered the advantages and disadvantages, then they should overwhelmingly be given the benefit of the doubt and the freedom to make up their own minds.”

Although schools are not responsible for children on their journey to school, guidance from the Department for Children, Schools and Families says if a school “believes or suspects that a child may be suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm” then it must refer the case to social services.

Catherine McDonald, Cabinet Member for Children's Services at Southwark Council, told the Mail: “As this is an independent school, it is for them to decide how they arrange transport to school with the parents of their pupils.

“However, if an independent school does contact us, we'd give them the same advice as we do to our own schools, that they should develop a school travel plan with parents and children so they can get to school safely and in a way that promotes healthy living and is good for the environment. This would include both cycling and walking.”

Cherry Allan, CTC Campaigns Information Co-ordinator told road.cc: “CTC is very disappointed to hear that Oliver and Gillian Schonrock’s decision to let their children cycle to school on their own has been described as “irresponsible”. All children should have the right to cycle to school: it allows them to travel quickly and independently through their local areas, providing not just autonomy, but a daily sense of achievement. To describe the Schronrock’s decision as irresponsible sends out a message that roads are for adults only, and undermines the health benefits of cycling to children – such as greater cardiovascular fitness and reduced levels of obesity - which far outweigh the risks.

"CTC fully supports parents who would like their children to cycle to school with a Right to Ride to School campaigning kit.”

15 user comments

Oldest firstNewest firstBest rated

5 years old?

Not a chance on your life.

8 years old yes.

Putting the responsibility of the 5 year old on the 8 year old - thats just horrible.

Imagine if the 5yr old gets struck by a car - the shame, anguish and pain that 8 year old would have to suffer - and the blame which would come from the parents...

Just my opinion though.

jobysp's picture

posted by jobysp [145 posts]
5th July 2010 - 13:02

like this
Like (2)

Of course, if they're happy for their children to do this, the answer is: "Yes, report me to social services - you should do what you think is right."

Admittedly you then have to go through dealing with Social Services, but you'd hope they'd see sense - after all, they really have better things to be dealing with, no?

timlennon's picture

posted by timlennon [226 posts]
5th July 2010 - 13:10

like this
Like (7)

jobysp, it depends on the 5-year old, some are perfectly capable enough. I would blame the driver if any harm came to them, but the Daily Mail might not support me in this.

I wish I was brave enough to let my children do this; they are of similar ages, and have what seems like a comparably busy trip.

The problem is the ratchet effect of everyone driving their kids to school, and causing so much traffic "it isn't safe for them not to."

posted by alan.paxton [4 posts]
5th July 2010 - 13:27

like this
Like (3)

Timlennon, you would have thought they would have better things to do but in this nanny state where, and I quote from a child protection course I went on last week "watching scary movies with children is quite clearly neglectful".

Letting an 8 year old supervise a 5 year old on a ride to school is not right, it isnt good to put the pressure on the 8 year old like that no matter what the cycling capability of them both. Remember that cycling england and most councils accross the country dont advocate children below 7 cycling at all, let along on roads (you have to be in year 5 to learn how to do that).

Social services do have more important and all together scary things to deal with but they, like a lot of services in this country, target the easy fix because the effort required to deal with major problems is just too much.

not all carbon is the same.

Jon Burrage's picture

posted by Jon Burrage [1080 posts]
5th July 2010 - 13:30

like this
Like (2)

I rode to school, unaccompanied, every day from the age of 6 till i was 18. If anything, my love of cycling grew out of this, and I never had one serious incident. Nothing in this world is 100% safe, but we've become so risk averse in this country that even a 1 in million chance is no longer considered acceptable. It's time people started taking responsibility for themselves, and realise that life isn't perfect, we can only do our best to train our children and ourselves to reduce it in any given situation.

mr-andrew's picture

posted by mr-andrew [294 posts]
5th July 2010 - 13:40

like this
Like (4)

My daughter is 8yo... I feel happiest to accompany her. But, she does cycle on busy back roads that don't have pavements. Just wish the school had a bike shed.

DaveP's picture

posted by DaveP [467 posts]
5th July 2010 - 14:03

like this
Like (3)

DaveP. Contact your local council, there is funding available for bike storage at schools accross the UK through various packages, most frequently in conjunction with sustrans. Most schools should have a school travel plan which can accommodate the need for a bike shed.

not all carbon is the same.

Jon Burrage's picture

posted by Jon Burrage [1080 posts]
5th July 2010 - 14:09

like this
Like (3)

It's the five year old being supervised by an eight year old that's the problem, yes? There wouldn't be a problem if it was just the eight year old. I'm not surprised that the school have flagged it, they'd be first in the firing line if something happened and the Wail would be the first to crucify them for 'failing'.

It's not much of a story really, just the usual sh*t-stirring from the Wail, garnished with windy opportunism from Boris.

Chuffy's picture

posted by Chuffy [183 posts]
5th July 2010 - 14:30

like this
Like (4)

"The children cycle on the pavement from their home in west Dulwich to the school. Their route takes them alongside roads that become busy with traffic during the school run. At the halfway point they cross a road where there is a lollipop lady on duty."

If more people got their kids to ride to school, the roads would not be so busy and the kids would be safer and fitter.

posted by Monkey [1 posts]
5th July 2010 - 14:37

like this
Like (6)

I know the area. Those are quiet roads.

But I also remember a classmate of mine. He was supposed to walk to school with his younger brother every morning. They argued constantly and separated as soon as they were down the road and out of sight of his parents, his younger brother walking to school with a friend of the same age. My classmate was 10 when his younger brother, then aged eight, was knocked down and killed by a car outside the school. The friend was struck but recovered from his injuries. They had been messing about and were late so the Lollipop man had already finished, while my classmate had already arrived safely.

Looking back now I can understand the devasation of my classmate and his parents as a result of this incident. They moved soon after.

Traffic volumes were a good deal lower in those days, though admittedly accident rates were high and brakes and so on weren't as good. The good old days before the introduction of health and safety regualtions weren't quite as rose tinted as some may think.

My sons are aged seven and nine and I wouldn't let them ride that distance by themeselves, though admittedly where I live is slightly busier than leafy Dulwich. They are both experienced cyclists and have competed and I let them ride on quiet roads sometimes if they are with me, which I know other parents at their school wouldn't consider.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [2125 posts]
5th July 2010 - 15:12

like this
Like (7)

Going by the aerial map on the Mail story, their garden backs on to Herne Hill Velodrome Nerd

Simon_MacMichael's picture

posted by Simon_MacMichael [7894 posts]
5th July 2010 - 16:49

like this
Like (2)

ahhh, let the kids cycle to school...probably statistically safer to let them cycle alone than to drive!

posted by petesam [10 posts]
5th July 2010 - 17:15

like this
Like (5)

No one would bat an eyelid in the Netherlands or Germany where independent travel to school by bike or on foot is perfectly normal and positively encouraged.

Many of our own generation were also allowed to cycle and walk to school and expected to escort our younger siblings and we have all survived to adulthood. Why was it considered safe for us to travel independently but not our children?

Ultimately the responsibility for a child's journey to school rests with the parents and if they consider the journey is safe and suitable for their children to make alone then that should be good enough for the school and social services. The fact that these children have been making these independent journeys perfectly safely and arriving at school every day should be proof enough that they are capable of doing it.

posted by Emma D [3 posts]
6th July 2010 - 11:03

like this
Like (3)

I had a similar experience.

When my daughter was at junior school her head teacher would not let me ride her to school on her bike. He said that even though I was accompanying her (busy roads) because she had not undertaken bikesafe training he would not endorse it and therefore was unwilling to give her a location within school grounds to store her bike. So instead I had to drive her to school and then myself to work. How un-green is that?

Rode the E'Tape Caledonia - first sportiv ever and thoroughly enjoyed it

badbunny's picture

posted by badbunny [71 posts]
6th July 2010 - 15:44

like this
Like (3)

Jobysp is right. Five is too young to be out on a bike in London without an adult, and it's far too much responsibility to load onto the shoulders of an eight year old. If there were a green lane or cyclepath all the way, much better, the eight year old fine, if with other children, but I still wouldn't want a five year old of mine out there. They don't have any traffic sense at that age, in my experience (of having both a daughter and grand-daughter, and introducing them both to cycling as soon as they could walk). It's not worth the risk, no way.

posted by bikeylikey [161 posts]
12th July 2010 - 18:23

like this
Like (3)