French lessons in school runs

The Blairs, like every other family, face an agonising decision about school: to drive or not to drive?
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The Independent Online
If the Deputy Prime Minister really wants to tackle the problem of gridlock, he could usefully start by talking to his boss. The most heart-warming images of the week were the Blair family moving house.

We have children of similar ages to the Blair-lettes, and are about to undergo the same trauma, even if our destination is not as exalted as theirs. But everyone has been through it. Even if you hire those incredibly efficient and muscular people who pack everything in cardboard cartons, you still can't fit it all in. Someone's most precious possession goes missing; and you can never understand what all that stuff the kids are carrying actually is.

No wonder that Mrs B might have lost the plot for a moment and forgotten that she is on show every minute of the day; the now famous photograph is etched on the national memory and has endeared her to us. The nation breathed a sigh of relief - this is no Hillary Clinton - steely-eyed and perfectly turned out on all occasions. She's just like us, really.

But the Blairs, like every other family with school-age children, face a profound and agonising decision about school: having decided where it is - to drive or not to drive? In their case, I suspect the decision was taken out of their hands by the security people, and quite rightly. But for most of us it's less clear-cut. We can't keep our children at home. Nor can we, unless Mr Blunkett turns out to be Merlin the Magician in disguise, expect that all our children will be able to go to a neighbourhood school in walking distance of our front doors. This is especially unrealistic in rural areas, and in any event, as we move on average once every seven years, the likelihood is that even if we do have an acceptable local school that will take our children, they won't be there for their whole school careers.

Yet we know that school traffic has doubled in the past 20 years. It now adds between 10 and 20 per cent to the peak-time volume of traffic in most cities; and it also affects the countryside too, where buses are scarce. And the numbers are set to rise. But the traffic experts say that a 7 per cent reduction in traffic volumes could make all the difference.

In fact, my colleagues at London Weekend Television recently conducted a simple but telling experiment. They filmed a suburban roundabout at 8am in two successive weeks. The first week it was jammed solid. The second week, it was almost empty, and the traffic sped through. The second week was, of course, half-term. The point is that it may only take a small change to transform the situation - a rattlesnake with its final inch removed is a completely new proposition. The genie will not go back in the bottle, however; with two out of three families now owning cars, the days of the long walk to school or the school bus are over.

As ever, the Americans are ahead of us on this. Especially in California, where families have embraced car-pooling with a vengeance. There are companies set up to organise rotas. You can even find partners on the Internet; pages urge you to save money, beat the stress and cut down on pollution. You also get to use special lanes. But there's a limit - trying to co- ordinate with your own family is hard enough, without adding anyone else's early-morning confusion to the mix.

The French, typically, disdain this sort of shambles and have adopted a nationally directed solution. In the UK, because of the historic control of schools by local authorities, every school in each area usually has the same holidays. There, they stagger holidays by designating every school in the country un, deux or trois. Les uns begin their Easter holidays, for example, two weeks after les deux, and les trois start two weeks after that.

This means that for a large part of the year only a third or two-thirds of the cars that disrupt the morning and afternoon traffic need to be on the roads. It may not be as convenient for teachers; but it seems to work. There could be an additional boon. Spreading the holiday weeks across the year might reduce the demand for foreign vacations in specific weeks, and force travel companies to bang down their preposterous prices. This is the sort of dirigiste, no-nonsense, non-ideological answer that ought to appeal to No 10 - New Labour, New Timetable.

While Mr Prescott is talking to his boss about traffic, he might also have another word about the new government's make-up. Any Prime Minister with a landslide majority and the chutzpah to give Tony Banks a job is possibly beyond criticism, but I hope that the colour in this administration won't be restricted to the bright hues of its women members' skirts.

Pleased as I am to see the gentle ascent of Mr Paul Boateng to a junior minister's Mondeo, it's disappointing that the assiduous and clever Leicester East MP Keith Vaz could not also find a place in government, despite having been the shadow minister for urban affairs. His crusade on behalf of the victims of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International debacle was admirable, and for those of us interested in the inner cities, he was beginning to develop something that looked like an imaginative approach to regeneration. He would have been an asset to Mr Prescott's team.

I think that my colleague Donald Macintyre and I can claim to have played a part in the most surprising ministerial appointment of all - that of Tony Banks. Macintyre and I jointly host Crosstalk, a Sunday lunchtime political talk show, on which Banks is a regular performer. Week after week we have tried to tempt the MP for West Ham to criticise the Blairite ascendancy in his party. Week after week he has refused the bait. Though towards the end the strain was showing - we had to spray Banks with cold water after one particularly provocative interview with Jack Straw - his loyalty never wavered. He now has his reward. I'm sure that he would like to know that I will be free on Cup Final Day.