Researchers from the University of Sheffield are looking at the effects of parental choice on what schools children go to, including the impact of hundreds of thousands of extra miles of commuting to schools further from home.
Dr Ed Ferrari, a lecturer in town and regional planning at the university, and Dr Sue Easton, a researcher on the project, were surprised to discover that only 45 per cent of city pupils, including primary age children, go to the school nearest to home.
That means taking more children to school by car or bus every day.
Ed and Sue began an 18-month project in April, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, analysing statistical information from Sheffield City Council on where kids live and where they go to school.
They are looking at the impact that has on children’s health and on the environment.
Ed said that there is a potential conflict between Government policy trying to expand the choice of schools and transport planners’ desire to minimise travel because of congestion on the roads.
Sue pointed out that less active commuting, such as walking and cycling to school, will inevitably have an effect on childhood obesity. “The lessons you learn early in life stay with you later on,” she added.
Other health-related issues concern car accident injuries near schools, an increase in pollution from more cars on the road and more road congestion.
Ed said: “Everyone knows how quiet Sheffield is in the holidays, which is emblematic of the whole issue.”
Sue said there was evidence of pollution affecting health problems like bronchitis, particularly in winter.
Sheffield is also lagging behind on some European targets to cut air pollution.
She said: “More road journeys have long-term implications for sustainability and low carbon emissions. We may be able to push the environmental impact up the agenda.”
Ed said: “The figure of only 45 per cent of children going to their nearest school surprised me a lot, That is why we are looking at this in more detail.”
He says the reasons may include parents choosing faith schools or a school that is handier for their journey to work, but it is more likely that the nearest school is full.
He said: “A consequence of parental choice is that the more popular schools are heavily oversubscribed. They prioritise kids with special educational need and the final criteria is distance from school.”
Sue said that she knows of a family with a child at Meersbrook Bank School who live within 100 yards of it but couldn’t get a place there for their younger child. That means dropping their youngsters at two different schools.
She said: “As parental choice increased under the 1980 Education Act and Education Reform Act of 1986, there is evidence that people from lower socio-economic classes got even less access to the better schools. They haven’t got the money for a mortgage in the school’s catchment area.”
That becomes more important as more popular schools, especially in better-off areas, opt out of local authority control and set their own priorities of what pupils they want.
Sue pointed out that free bus passes are only for children who travel more than three miles to school.
She added: “Some people might not be as confident about how the system works to get their child into their first-choice school. Some parents use a strategy of a transfer option rather than their first preference.
“Popular schools are oversubscribed. That’s the reality.”
Ed said that they are looking at how the cost of buying a home near the most popular schools, usually in the south-west of the city, is higher, based on Land Registry house prices.
Sue said: “State education isn’t really free if people are paying £10,000 to £20,000 extra on their mortgage. Estate agents are putting into their details whether houses they sell are close to good schools.”
She will be exploring the socio-economic background of children and where they end up going to school.
Ed said: “The research will have an influence on local policy at least as Sheffield City Council is supporting the project.
“We want to get planners and education policy planners around the table on this. At the end of the project we’re holding a workshop with them to discuss our results.
“We can inform policy makers to make better choices. At the moment a lot of policy making is made in ignorance of other societal costs and benefits.
“It is for Sheffield to decide whether it wants to improve schools or improve access to schools. They are very different things.
“Hopefully the research will also help planners to decide where to site new schools, which has implications for housing development.”
Their work will also be looked at by Government departments, so it may have a national impact as well.
To find out more about the research, go to www.traveltoschoolproject.org.uk.
Sue is also talking about the project on the University Bus, which is telling people more about the university’s work. Her session takes place on Saturday, September 28 from 11.30am to 11.50am when the bus visits The Moor.