Children's independence outside the home has dramatically dropped over the last 40 years, report shows

Cycling and walking has gone out of fashion in the UK - but it didn't happen in Germany...

by Sarah Barth   January 13, 2013  

Children cycling - pic credit European Cyclists Federation

A new study reveals a dramatic loss of children’s independence outside the home over the last 40 years.

Only 25 per cent of primary school children in England are allowed to travel home from school alone compared with 86 per cent in 1971, and the study from the University of Westminster also found that primary school children in England have far less freedom than they do in Germany.

Ben Watson, Research Fellow at the Policy Studies Institute (and one of the authors of the report) said: “Independent mobility has been shown to be good for children’s wellbeing and development, yet our research shows it has dropped significantly in the past four decades.

"The experience from Germany shows that this drop is not an inevitable result of modern life.

"If we care about the future health of our children, action should be taken to enable them to regain the right to a safe outdoor environment without the need for adult supervision.”

In 1971, 86 per cent of the parents of primary school children surveyed said that their children were allowed to travel home from school alone. By 1990, this had dropped markedly to 35 per cent, and there was a further drop to 25 per cent being allowed to do so in 2010.

Modes of transport also changed; there was a shift away from walking and cycling between 1990 and 2010 in the surveyed schools. Use of public transport and school buses increased 15 percentage points (from 49 per cent in 1990 to 64 per cent in 2010). Car travel also increased (from 9 per cent in 1990 to 14 per cent in 2010).

The study also reviewed attitudes towards cycling as a mode of transport:

[It] found that walking and cycling are perceived by children and young people as less convenient, pleasant and safe than travelling by car. However, it also highlighted that this perception may relate to cultural or preference‐related influences as much as to structural factors.

Low preference for walking and cycling may relate to perceptions of low status of these modes. However, children and especially young children are more positive than their parents about walking and cycling. One may draw from this that, while parents may have legitimate safety concerns about letting their children out alone, there are also important cultural pressures, leading parents to take their children to places by car for reasons other than safety.

The full report is available to read here.

Sustrans Chief Executive Malcolm Shepherd said: “It’s a tragedy that so many of our children are failing to meet recommended physical activity levels but little wonder when parents don’t feel that their local streets are safe.

“We urgently need to make our communities safer if we’re to get kids active by walking and cycling to school and playing outdoors.

“Parents want to see safer streets - the Government must change the standard speed limit to 20mph on the streets where we live, work and play.”

Cath Prisk, Director of Play England, said: “Parents who want to buck this worrying trend should think about giving their kids the gift of independence at home, on the doorstep, in their neighbourhood and further afield."

7 user comments

Oldest firstNewest firstBest rated

Nice soundbite from Malcolm Shepherd, but he needs to wise up to the Coalition's localism agenda (it's only been spouting it for two and a half years). The government's response would be that speed limits are (and should be) decided locally.

posted by Campag_10 [153 posts]
13th January 2013 - 17:44

like this
Like (3)

I suspect that the very very slight - but nightmarish - risk of sexual predation (or rather the fear of it) plays a role here too. If the country's two or three most popular newspapers are telling us that the streets of Broken Britain are crawling with paedos, pervs, feral youths and murderous asylum seekers it's not that surprising that many parents are leery of their kids walking home from school unsupervised.

Ghedebrav's picture

posted by Ghedebrav [822 posts]
14th January 2013 - 9:28

like this
Like (2)

Statistically the 1970s were a very bad time for children indeed as the revelations about Jimmy Saville and his horrible crimes, plus those of his associates and others like him, are beginning to reveal. The crimes went on behind closed doors and were very rarely reported on, unlike now. There may have been a lot fewer cars on the road in the UK, but accident levels were much higher due to regular drink driving and speeding and the annual fatality rate was also far higher than it is now.

The perception of danger compared with actual risk has changed significantly. As a parent myself I try to allow my kids freedom, but know they can't have the freedoms I had. It's as much down to peer group pressure amongst parents as anything else. My kids are not ferried to and from school by car - one walks and the other takes the bus (it's too far to walk). But I know a lot of parents who still insist on driving short distances to and from school.

I see also the terrible congestion outside schools when I make my commute and how this blocks other traffic, and I do wonder how many of those kids live less than 2km from their school and could easily walk. And because they are so protected at a young age, when they become teenagers and do go out on their own they'll have so much less experience of crossing roads or of independence in general they'll be at even greater risk.

I do look at my nephews growing up in Germany and see they still have much greater freedom than my kids here in the UK, and my kids certainly enjoy that when they're with their cousins there on holiday. But there are hidden dangers in Germany also, where let's face it the annual fatality rate is proportionially higher on the roads than in the UK. And there are also crimes of abuse against children that are perhaps not as widely reported in the UK, leading to a false perception of safety (as was the case in the UK in the 1970s).

It isn't just about cycling. But encouraging parents to teach their kids to ride bikes would help. A lot of parents are too lazy, while others are too scared of perceived risk, to think of cycling. We are facing an obesity crisis in the UK that is already costing us a fortune in preventable illness and which the NHS can ill afford.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [1959 posts]
14th January 2013 - 10:17

like this
Like (1)

(in reply to Ghedebrav) Which leads to the an interesting question: Are the population living in fear because they're told to be, or because they want to be? In exactly whose interest is a fearful population?

nowasps's picture

posted by nowasps [210 posts]
14th January 2013 - 10:23

like this
Like (1)

What a horrible picture. Testament to the denormalisation of cycling.

posted by Paul J [431 posts]
14th January 2013 - 10:45

like this
Like (3)

nowasps wrote:
(in reply to Ghedebrav) Which leads to the an interesting question: Are the population living in fear because they're told to be, or because they want to be? In exactly whose interest is a fearful population?

In short, children are actually safer now than they were in the 1970s, but parents (like me) are more aware and more concerned than my parents were when I was young. If you read this first bit of my post it gives you the answer:

Statistically the 1970s were a very bad time for children indeed as the revelations about Jimmy Saville and his horrible crimes, plus those of his associates and others like him, are beginning to reveal. The crimes went on behind closed doors and were very rarely reported on, unlike now. There may have been a lot fewer cars on the road in the UK, but accident levels were much higher due to regular drink driving and speeding and the annual fatality rate was also far higher than it is now.

The perception of danger compared with actual risk has changed significantly. As a parent myself I try to allow my kids freedom, but know they can't have the freedoms I had. It's as much down to peer group pressure amongst parents as anything else.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [1959 posts]
14th January 2013 - 12:02

like this
Like (2)

nowasps wrote:
(in reply to Ghedebrav) Which leads to the an interesting question: Are the population living in fear because they're told to be, or because they want to be? In exactly whose interest is a fearful population?

Well now you're getting into the really interesting stuff about conformity, the enemy within, the control value of a siege mentality etc etc! Possibly not for the comments section of this article though...

Dodging the saccadic masking

posted by notfastenough [2617 posts]
14th January 2013 - 14:44

like this
Like (2)