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How schools are banning cars outside to protect children from air pollution

‘It’s just safe and calm,’ headteacher tells Zoe Tidman

Friday 14 January 2022 21:28 GMT
Pupils at Holy Cross Catholic Primary School monitor streets outside the school
Pupils at Holy Cross Catholic Primary School monitor streets outside the school (Suppied)

Every morning and afternoon outside the Holy Cross Catholic Primary School in Birmingham, children are ready to make sure no parents are breaking the rules.

The pupils stand guard in two streets, where cars are banned at the start and end of the school day to reduce the air pollution their classmates are exposed to.

“They have the power or the authority to record down vehicle registrations if they’re not parking safely, which they love,” Katrina Crowley, the headteacher, tells The Independent.

“And the power probably goes to their head a little bit too much.”

Her school is one of hundreds across the country that has set up “School Streets” in a bid to make air cleaner for children coming and going from school.

Under the scheme, road or roads near schools become temporarily pedestrianised at times when schoolchildren are getting picked up or dropped off from school.

It has been estimated more than three million pupils in England attend school in areas where the air is polluted. Children in London - where at-risk people were told to limit strenuous physical activity due to pollution on Friday - were far more likely to go to school where levels exceeded global limits, according to research last year.

This has sparked fears over children’s health, with experts saying breathing dangerous levels of pollution can damage lungs and even be fatal for those with existing conditions.

Dangerous levels of air pollution have been found to contribute to the death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah from London, who died after suffering a severe asthma attack in 2013.

The vast majority of car-free school streets are in the capital, where the first one was set up in Camden in 2017, according to Sylvia Gauthereau, a campaigner for School Streets.

Cities such as Manchester, Nottingham and Plymouth have also been setting up their own car-free streets around schools in recent years.

Ms Crowley says her school was making sure pupils “understood they have the right to clean air” when it noticed a pilot scheme for car-free school streets running in Birmingham - and thought this was “perfect” for its children.

Since September 2020, two streets next to Holy Cross Catholic Primary School have gone car-free in the morning and afternoon. This immediately made outside the school “calmer” and “safer”, the headteacher says.

“There was no hustle and bustle trying to get a car parking space outside the school because they physically couldn’t drive up that cul-de-sac,” she tells The Independent.

Parents are finding parking spots further away and are dispersed, meaning less build-up of cars nearby, she says.

More pupils are arriving at school on bikes or walking and are making the most of a park nearby, which they have to walk through to get to a nearby car park.

On top of this, the children have assessed the air quality outside the school since the streets became car-free at certain hours of the day. “It had noticeably improved,” Ms Crowley says.

A study by the London Assembly last year found School Streets reduced nitrogen dioxide - an air pollutant - by up to 23 per cent during the morning drop-off.

But these streets have other benefits outside of making the air cleaner, Ms Crowley says.

Parents have been pleased over how safe it made the streets for their children. “You could cross the road without having to worry about cars zooming up or curbing it,” she says.

Ms Gauthereau, who founded the national campaign for School Streets, says this is one of the main benefits - as well as encouraging children to be active and allowing families to have quality time on their journey to school rather than being stuck in “stressful” car journeys.

There are around 600 around the country as a whole, including 12 in Calderdale in West Yorkshire, which has been trialling the car-free zones for more than a year.

Scott Patient, a local councillor, tells The Independent they have multiple benefits, such as limiting air pollution, creating more pleasant streets and encouraging people to walk and cycle more.

Feedback from parents and staff taking part has been “overwhelmingly positive”, with nearly three-quarters of respondents wanting to make them a permanent feature.

Birmingham City Council says it plans to roll-out more across the city, after the success of its pilot schemes, of which Holy Cross Catholic Primary School was a part.

“We just love it,” headteacher Ms Crowley says. “It's just safe. It's calm.”

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