Enemy at the gate?

Her car clogs our roads, and may trigger a new traffic tax, but does School Run Mum deserve her status as the nation's new hate figure? Victoria Summerley writes in defence of women on the verge
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The Independent Online

She drives a 4x4 - preferably one of the big-bastard breeds, such as the BMW X5 or a Jeep Grand Cherokee. She has blonde highlights, held back by a velvet Alice band or a pair of designer sunglasses. She probably doesn't work, is married to a dreadful person such as a merchant banker or a corporate lawyer, and her main role in life seems to be delivering small people in blazers and boaters to exclusive prep schools. She would die rather than step on a bus or expose her children to normal (that is, working-class, multicultural) life. She is the new Public Enemy Number One. She is School Run Mum.

She drives a 4x4 - preferably one of the big-bastard breeds, such as the BMW X5 or a Jeep Grand Cherokee. She has blonde highlights, held back by a velvet Alice band or a pair of designer sunglasses. She probably doesn't work, is married to a dreadful person such as a merchant banker or a corporate lawyer, and her main role in life seems to be delivering small people in blazers and boaters to exclusive prep schools. She would die rather than step on a bus or expose her children to normal (that is, working-class, multicultural) life. She is the new Public Enemy Number One. She is School Run Mum.

She's even passed into the 21st century youth lexicon. Kids who wouldn't know a Lexus RX300 from a Morris Minor have started using her as a byword for uncool, as in: "I used to like Ms Dynamite, but now all the School Run Mums listen to her."

Now the Government is gunning for her, big time. Analysts believe that she will bear the brunt of the Transport Secretary Alistair Darling's plans to stop Britain sliding into national gridlock by monitoring rush-hour routes by satellite and charging drivers who contribute to the biggest jams - those in towns and cities. Darling is unrepentant about this, saying: "Unless we look at the possibility [of road pricing], future generations will not forgive us."

Add to this the recent campaign by Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, to cut the use of 4x4 vehicles. Baker, who is the Liberal Democrat shadow environment spokesman, says: "These vehicles were once the preserve of farmers and off-road enthusiasts, but are now to be found everywhere. Increasingly they are marketed directly to wealthy urban dwellers as status symbols, expressions of wealth, tools to fight your way through the urban jungle." So it's OK for Farmer Giles to pollute the countryside, but Ms Public Enemy should keep her "Chelsea tractor" out of Sainsbury's car park.

For Chelsea, read also Hampstead. This leafy north-London area has what is thought to be the highest density of school runs in Europe. It should be pointed out, however, that it's not only in London that the Chelsea tractor cuts a swathe through the small-chassised classes - 4x4 mums appear in wealthy areas around the country.

I was appalled when my children started primary school to discover that many parents - not any old motorists, but parents - stopped on the zig-zag yellow lines outside the school, putting not only their own offspring but everyone else's at risk as they pulled in amid the throngs of children.

I remember suggesting to the PTA that they name and shame these drivers by posting the car registration numbers of the offenders in huge letters at the school gate. Failing that, how about a few "stinger" bars (those spiked lengths of metal that the police use to deter getaway cars)? I was amazed when these suggestions were met with embarrassed looks rather than shouts of acclaim.

But, 10 years later, I realise why. We're not talking urban stereotypes here, we're talking real people. Real parents, with real lives, having a real struggle every morning to get the kids to school on time and then get to work. Sure, there are probably lots of women like Ms Public Enemy on the school run every morning, roaring off to the gym or tennis club after they've dropped little Charlie and Emily at St Snooty's or wherever. But there are many more women - and lots of men - who are dropping their kids at state schools and waving goodbye from clapped-out Ford Fiestas, old Renault Fives and rusting Fiat Pandas.

My children walk and cycle to school every day. Indeed, I cannot remember a single occasion when my children have been driven to school (and my son is now at secondary school) unless they've been dropped off after a dentist's appointment or piano exam or some such. But for many busy working mothers, this is simply not an option.

They would probably much prefer to walk to school with their children and enjoy the chance to talk on the way. But unless they're very lucky, there probably isn't a bus or train that goes anywhere near the school and then connects with another that goes anywhere near their work and takes less than two hours or so.

No one in their right mind really wants to get in a car, however big or small it is, and stress themselves out by negotiating the sort of traffic that can turn a two-mile journey into a two-hour nightmare. The reason I've never driven my kids to school is not so much because I feel strongly about traffic and pollution, but because I look at the roads near their schools and know there is absolutely no way I would want to drive along them between 8.30am and 9.15am.

No one in their right mind wants to pay school fees if there is a state school providing an excellent education at the end of the road. Is this debate really about the environment? Or is it, as its critics claim, about finding yet more ways to tax the middle classes without being brave enough to come up with radical ideas that would reduce the need for school runs altogether?

In the meantime, those of us who live in the big cities and who have school-age children will find our social consciences squirming uncomfortably over some kind of moral dilemma sooner or later, whether it's about private schools or comprehensive education, or polluting the environment. In that respect, we are all the School Run Mum, with or without the 4x4.

There is a very real danger that class envy is fogging the school-run debate, as it is fogging so much debate about British life. Let's forget about who drives what. Let's look at what might work.

A couple of weeks ago, like many state schools, my daughter's school held a Walk to School week. One of the most popular features was the Walking Bus, which consisted of two "crocodiles" of children that followed two pre-set routes to school. Older children could join the crocodile by themselves, spurred on by the fact that early arrivals got to hold the banner at the front. It was immensely popular.

Why don't we have a Walking Bus every week? Why don't we all use our imaginations and come up with some more creative ideas like that? Surely this would be a much more grown-up and constructive way to behave than making a lot of assumptions about our neighbours just because they drive flash cars.

The worst school run in britain? Julia Stuart reports from the Hampstead front line

7.45am

Light traffic is zipping down Fitzjohn's Avenue, a major artery in Hampstead, north London, which alone is home to five schools. There are a total of 30 within a square mile, attracting 6,000 school-run car journeys a day. At peak times, they account for 60 per cent of the traffic. For the moment, you can still hear the birds singing.

8am

A Mercedes-Benz people carrier, carrying four children, turns off Fitzjohn's Avenue into Nutley Terrace, followed by a milk-float. The school run has started, despite the fact that school doesn't start for an hour. It is followed by a Jeep with two children inside, then a Range Rover bearing three. A Mercedes-Benz stops and parks on the single yellow line in the mouth of Nutley Terrace, which crosses Fitzjohn's Avenue. The driver, Rabia Lingemann, 37, an IT consultant, puts a permit on her dashboard. Issued by the school, in conjunction with the local authority, it is valid between 8.30am and 9.30am and from 3pm to 4pm for a maximum stay of 15 minutes during term time. She will sit for 45 minutes in her car, waiting until school starts for Yasmine, four, and Omar, three, who are bouncing around in the back. "It's taken me less than seven minutes from our home in Cricklewood, but if I left it later, it would take about half an hour. I have no choice but to come this early. It would take 30 minutes to walk, which is too long. The state schools are not good in my area."

A trail of Mercedes-Benz cars and Land Cruisers turn into the terrace. The birds can no longer be heard. Christopher Bunker, a dermatologist, is walking his two daughters, aged 11 and eight, to school. Normally, he would drive them from his home in South Hampstead, but he's currently off work. "I'm on traffic duty this afternoon," he says. "Each family takes a turn once a term. You have to watch that everybody is abiding by the agreed convention - a one-way system - and you have to report miscreant behaviour. If you break it, your number plate is read out in assembly."

"It's printed in the newsletter," his elder daughter, holding a pair of fairy wings, corrects him.

8.20am

A variety of musical instruments are being walked up the pavement of Fitzjohn's Avenue, which is clogging up with people carriers, many with darkened windows. An enormous Land-Rover with a roof-rack parks at the entrance of Nutley Terrace. Hilary Lewis and her husband Mark are dropping off their boys aged six and four. She is production manager, and he a contractor. It took them half an hour from Crouch End. "The streets aren't made for these types of cars," she admits. "It's not just for the school run, my husband carries a lot of stuff in the back. We're both big people and like to have as much space as we can. Until they improve public transport, we'll carry on driving the boys to school." Their presence at the entrance of a junction, the family's regular spot, is not exactly helping the stagnation of traffic. A white van narrowly misses my toes and pulls onto the pavement. It belongs to John, an electrician, who has driven for an hour from Totteridge to take his three-year-old daughter to private school. "You don't ever get parked. I get away with this because I'm in a van. It's an absolute nightmare." Horns are starting to sound.

8.35am

Traffic is backed up in every direction from the junction. An empty cab decides not to venture down Nutley and does a U-turn, bringing everything to a halt. A woman driving a Chrysler stops in the middle of the road and deposits her children with a woman on the pavement wearing a fluorescent jacket who leads them into school. There is a line of immobile traffic behind her. Irritated drivers strain to see what's going on. Frowns are carved into foreheads. "This is a nightmare," says a woman doctor, who has just dropped off her five and six-year-old. "If I didn't take them myself, I wouldn't get to work on time. The whole thing is ruined by mothers driving 4x4s. They park across people's driveways and do U-turns in small streets. That's why the residents get so grumpy. Their cars are just a status thing."

One car is pulling out, another is trying to park and there is a line of traffic down the middle of the road. Meanwhile, a father parks his Lexus on the corner of Nutley Avenue, just feet away from the main road. "It's the women drivers who are the problem," he says. "They stand and talk to each other because they don't have to go to the office."

8.55am

Nothing is moving along Nutley Terrace. A woman driver shakes her head and another mouths the F-word. The school bell is about to sound.

Teresa Tuvey is walking her daughter, Katherine, 4, down the terrace, looking the picture of serenity. The pair have just got off the bus from Maida Vale, a journey which took half an hour. "I don't have a car," explains the housewife, happily.

9.15am

Nutley Terrace is virtually empty and the bottleneck on Fitzjohn's Avenue has eased. At last, Hampstead has been handed back to its residents. Postman Dorian Marsh, 41, finally has the pavements to himself and his red cart. "It's always murder," he says. "Bedlam. I feel sorry for anyone who lives around here. I take my life into my own hands to cross the roads. I sigh with relief when the summer holidays come. It's really nice around here then."

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