One mother's seat belt battle

Diana Hinds describes what happened when a parent took a stand on safer travel for her child
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The Independent Online
Shelly Sherrin has more reason than most to feel passionately about the need for seat belts. Eight years ago, her sister, aged 31, was killed in a car crash that flung her through the front windscreen: she was not wearing a belt.

Earlier this year, Mrs Sherrin set up the Bishop's Stortford branch of the national campaign group Belt Up School Kids (Busk), and in June she decided it was time to put her foot down with her son's school, the Richard Whittington Primary School in Bishop's Stortford. Rather than allow him to travel to swimming lessons in a coach without seat belts, Mrs Sherrin asked the headteacher, Alison Warn, if she could drive him there herself. No, she was told. So Craig, then seven, stayed behind at school to do extra maths, and his mother took him swimming in the evenings.

In October, a school visit to a nature reserve was planned and Craig was anxious to go. This time the headteacher agreed that she could drive him. But a week later, a newsletter went out to parents stating that the school governors had decided that all children going on trips must travel by coach: children arriving "from all directions'' in their parents' cars "would be unmanageable'', the letter said.

Upset but undaunted, Mrs Sherrin wrote to Mrs Warn when the swimming sessions started again in November, stating that she did not want her son to travel on the coach without a belt. She arrived at the school to drive him to the pool, to find that the trip had been cancelled. Mrs Warn wrote to parents to explain she had done this because of a stand taken by one mother.

Since then Craig has been bullied, his mother alleges. Children who blamed him for their swimming being cancelled told him that his mother "would end up in prison'', and taunted him as he went about the school: "Don't forget your seat belt, Craig.'' Pre viously a happy child, he now has nightmares and wets the bed, and is frequently in tears, not wanting to go to school.

"To see my son suffering like this has put me through hell and back,'' Mrs Sherrin says. "If I'd known what was going to happen, and that the headteacher was going to cancel the trip, I wouldn't have started all this.''

Soon afterwards, however, the school managed to hire a coach with a small number of lap belts - on exposed seats at the back, front and in the middle beside the coffee machine - and Mrs Sherrin agreed that Craig could travel on it. But more problems ensued: Craig was further tormented by children.

Before the next swimming trip, she asked again to be allowed to drive him, and was told Craig would have to stay behind at school. But it transpired that he had been taken on the coach after all - the result of a "misunderstanding'', according to a spokeswoman from Hertfordshire education authority, speaking on behalf of the school - and that he had been instructed to sit in a seat without a belt.

Craig's nightmares and distress have continued, and the bullying, his mother alleges, has worsened.

David Burrows, the solicitor acting for Mrs Sherrin, says: "The crux of the case is the extent to which parents hand over responsibility to the school. The school is saying it can do what it likes in the course of the school day, but under the Children Act, a parent can place restrictions on the responsibility that is delegated to others.''

The local authority is firmly supporting the school. "School transport policy is a matter for the headteacher and the governors, but we believe they have acted entirely responsibly in view of a difficult situation,'' the spokeswoman said. "They have the problem of having to consider the needs of all the pupils, not just one.''

She said the school had gone out of its way to find a coach with seat belts - which was the best available in the area. But because Mrs Sherrin "remains insistent, and because of her special circumstances'', the school has decided to make an exception and allow her to drive her son for the rest of this term - even though this means an extra member of staff on swimming trips to meet Craig in the car park.

Mrs Sherrin is by no means alone in her concerns. Pat Harris, founder and national co-ordinator of Busk, says 75 per cent of the calls and letters she receives are from parents who do not wish their children to travel without seat belts and want to know what they can do about it.

Mrs Harris believes the need for seat belts is gradually winning the support of education authorities, and even some bus and coach companies, but without legislation, the financial outlay involved is a major deterrent.

Busk: (0291) 672488