Why families should give thanks to the school run

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The Independent Online

There's not much you can teach a career parent about whistling in the dark, but it's always good to have a new tune to whistle. So the recent Future Foundation report that showed working parents were spending more time with their children than ever before came as a pleasant start to the week. And, as it happened, one of the reasons cited for this increase - the growth of the school run - harmonised beautifully with a consolatory melody I've been working on myself, usually when creeping slowly along the road at three miles an hour.

"Isn't it awful," people say when the subject of the daily school run comes up, at which point I pucker up and launch into the opening bars of the little composition that I have devised to comfort myself. No, I reply, it really isn't that bad, since it's one of the few times in an ordinary weekday when I can be with my children without some kind of external pressure hovering in the wings. There's no homework to do, no bath to be taken, no PlayStation bleeping its siren call. For the duration of the school run they can't get away to something more interesting and neither can I. We are each other's captives and, in the end, the Stockholm syndrome is bound to come into play.

I didn't always feel this way, I confess - indeed I was in a state of shock for the first week of the new regime, which replaced a 20-minute walk to school with up to an hour and a half exploring the rat-runs of north London (all necessitated by my children changing schools). An oozing gridlock in which traffic moved like cooling magma. How could such a lunatic state of affairs ever have developed? What mass delusion had seized this multicellular organism, fuming and jolting its way through the narrowed arteries of the city, and why had I committed my children to this daily incarceration?

Incredulity was replaced by a period of desperate invention. There must be some way out - some undetected cut-through that would reduce the journey time, some previously ignored form of public transport that would get us within walking distance. Surely a runaway juggernaut could do away with the listed building at that notorious pinch-point half-way along the route? When I found myself wondering how soon the five-year-old would be able to get up a decent rate of speed on inline skates, I knew that I was straying into a dark place. Then came the kind of fatalism that will one day lead to mass desertification and typhoons in Morecambe. After a while, the least bad route had been determined by trial and furious error, and an understanding of the peristaltic physics of London traffic painfully arrived at - just as Kalahari bushmen can read the passage of kudu in bent grass stalks, I can now anticipate a nasty tailback three junctions in advance by reading the expressions in the eyes of oncoming drivers. And this knowledge brought a kind of calm with it - how long it took was how long it took - and since the time couldn't be used for anything else it might as well be used for being with my children.

"Quality time", which is what the Future Foundation's report concentrated on, is not the first phrase you would choose to describe the social ambience of the school run, not unless your definition of "quality" includes a bottomless supply of bum jokes (if that isn't a contradiction in terms). This is a time when you discover the unappeasable appetite of small boys for winding down the windows and shouting at passing pedestrians, and when you are reminded of long-forgotten skills of hand-to-hand taunting.

Since I made the decision to abstain from the Today programme while in transit (assisted in self-sacrifice by the deafening cries of "boring!" which erupted whenever it was turned on), I have become the default in- car entertainment system. One junction along our route is designated the quiz point; before we reach it I am left alone to install my basic operating software; after it I am expected to issue questions at the press of a button. "Why exactly am I doing this?", which is the one that comes to mind first, has yet to receive an answer.

And yet - for all the tedium and the indefensible ecological damage involved - it is not without its upsides. I know more about my children's lives than I would otherwise, and have more time to sense the currents of anxiety and pleasure that sweep through them.

I know all the arguments against - that I actually have to gas my children to get to know them better, since carbon monoxide levels can be 10 times higher in a slowly moving car than on the pavement beside it. I know that the CBI has valued the "lost time" taking children to school at £20bn a year. Until I have some kind of realistic choice, though, neither of those tunes is anywhere near as appealing as the soothing strains issuing from the Future Foundation.

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