Tackling the school run: research study

A research study to provide the latest evidence on school transport choices.

Chapter 1 - Background


SYSTRA Ltd, in partnership with Wellside Research and Sustrans, were commissioned by the Scottish Government "to provide the latest evidence on school transport choices and which approaches have been effective in influencing these, in order to inform the development of workable and deliverable policies that minimise the proportion of journeys to school made by car while increasing the proportion choosing active travel."

The study arose as part of a package of measures announced in June 2015 to address climate change, which included the intention to revise policy towards tackling the school run. Successfully changing ingrained ways of thinking and influencing behaviour in this area is likely to require sustained and targeted action to both improve sustainable travel infrastructure and support behaviour change. The first step, leading to the commissioning of this study, highlighted the need to gather the latest evidence on school transport choices and which approaches have been effective in influencing these, and to reflect on what further action could be taken to reduce the impact of the school run.

The study was overseen by a Project Steering Group with representation from across Scottish Government Directorates, including Learning, Transport Policy (Active & Sustainable Transport) and Energy & Climate Change. The Society of Chief Officers for Transport ( SCOTS), Association of Transport Coordinating Officers ( ATCO) and Association for the Directors of Education Scotland ( ADES) were also represented on the Steering Group.

Purpose of the Study

The research was designed to provide:

  • A summary (from current data and literature on current patterns and recent trends) about school transport choices in Scotland as well as elsewhere; and
  • An appraisal of existing approaches to influencing school transport choices (in Scotland and internationally), including consideration of approaches that have been shown to be effective in different school settings, why they worked, how transferable these approaches are likely to be across school types and locations, and the extent of the impact in mode choice including the uptake of active travel.

The aims of the research were met by addressing each of the following objectives:

  • Investigate school transport choices and what influences these at a local authority, individual school and household level;
  • Map relevant activity that is already being undertaken to influence school transport choices (in Scotland and internationally), assess which approaches have been most effective and explore how these can be replicated;
  • Explore examples from different school types in Scotland to gain a more detailed understanding of what is/is not working and why, in these different settings; and
  • Advise where policy efforts would best be concentrated and the respective roles for education, transport and health portfolios in reducing travel to school by car and increasing the role of active travel.

The findings and recommendations of the research do not in themselves provide a single solution or policy outline for tackling the school run, rather they will be used to inform future discussions on the possible options to reduce the impact of the school run. The evidence gathered will be used to develop an integrated package of policies on tackling the school run, with the aim of reducing the proportion of journeys to school made by car and increasing the role of active travel, consequently, reducing congestion and pollution.

Research Phases and Methodology

The research approach comprised three main phases, as follows:

  • A familiarisation phase consisting of a Literature Review, secondary data analysis, and stakeholder discussions, which informed the case study selection process and helped guide the design of data collection materials;
  • A qualitative data collection phase consisting of fieldwork involving one-to-one and mini-group interviews with Head Teachers/school staff, pupils, parents, key local authority representatives and other key stakeholders/service providers to ensure that the views of all of the main influencers of school travel mode choice are captured; and
  • Analysis and reporting of the data to produce recommendations that can inform the development of an integrated package of policies on tackling the school run.

The approach to the literature review and fieldwork is described further below.

Literature Review

The purpose of the literature review was threefold:

  • To place the research within the broader policy context;
  • To update knowledge of what influences school transport choices; the effectiveness of initiatives currently underway in Scotland with the aim of altering school transport behaviours; the effectiveness of international initiatives, and how these might inform the Scottish context; and
  • To contribute to the selection process to identify suitable case study initiatives/schools/areas for inclusion in the primary data collection phase.

Existing literature reviews and systematic reviews were a key data source. In particular, the 2012 Glasgow Centre for Population Health ( GCPH) Active Travel To and From School report provided a key reference point. A review of the bibliography for that study assisted in identifying material also of relevance to this study. This was supplemented by the research team's own knowledge, and a further search of literature in turn provided additional links to other material. This review included policy, research papers, project reports and relevant guidance documents, and was focused through a keyword search using terms agreed with the Project Steering Group. These search terms included:

  • School run;
  • School travel;
  • School run initiatives;
  • School travel plans;
  • School travel policy;
  • Active travel for school pupils;
  • Health benefits of active travel;
  • Environment benefits of active travel;
  • Promoting active travel to school; and
  • Travel to school mode choice in Scotland.

National datasets, such as the 2011 Census, Scottish Household Survey and associated publications such as Transport and Travel in Scotland were also identified and incorporated within the review. The review also benefited from direct access to academic databases held by Sustrans which were interrogated to identify relevant academic research using key term searches 'school', 'children', 'education', 'school travel' and 'school run'. In addition, the Sustrans report database was also searched for project reports using similar terms and project names.

The document sourcing was also informed by contact and discussion with stakeholders who also provided additional documentation to inform the Literature Review. This facilitated both the collation of further material and ensured the most up to date information was included, as well as providing direct background to many 'live' national level initiatives, such as Bikeability, I-Bike and Walk Once a Week. Key points from the Literature review are highlighted in subsequent chapters of this report and The Tackling the School Run Literature Review Technical Note published alongside this report contains full details of the review with a Reference List included in Appendix A.


The fieldwork phase involved engagement with 11 case study schools where pupils live within a distance which allows for active travel and also where active travel does occur to provide case studies with characteristics of relevance to this study. While the intention was not to obtain a representative case study sample, the study sought to include a range of different types of schools and settings.

In summary, the fieldwork phase of the study involved:

  • Interviews with school staff - Head Teachers, Deputy Head Teachers or other members of the school staff;
  • Pupil mini-focus groups with P6, S1 and S3 pupils who currently travel to school by sustainable modes or have the option to do so;
  • Pupil led interviews with their parents at home; and
  • Local authority and other stakeholder discussions.

Table 1.1 provides a breakdown of the numbers of interview and focus group participants within the research and each element of the research is discussed in further detail below. Further details about the fieldwork are provided in Appendix B and the Topic Guides developed for each discussion are enclosed in Appendix C.

Table 1.1 Interview and Focus Group Participants

Stakeholder Primary Schools Secondary Schools Total
School Staff Interviewed 7 4 11
Pupils in Focus Groups 112 66 178
Parent Interviews 69 37 106
Local Authority Officers Interviewed - - 15
Other Stakeholder Officers Interviewed - - 9

Whilst the total numbers of pupils and parents included in this research is significant for a qualitative study, the sample sizes within individual schools are smaller. Although samples at the case study level are more consistent with qualitative approaches, these smaller samples cannot be considered representative of all views and experiences within a school.

There were some variations in pupil selection within schools, which included both random sampling within classes, sampling within classes to provide representation of different travel modes and distances travelled, and inclusion of all pupils within a class/year group. This was largely determined by the size of schools and teacher based sampling on the day. Despite these differences, a good range of travel modes, distances travelled and range of issues was identified and included across all groups, and therefore, it is not considered that these sampling differences created any significant biases within the results.

Report Structure

Following this introductory chapter, the report is structured as follows:

  • Chapter 2 sets the scene to the study, providing an overview of school travel trends in Scotland as well as consideration of key policies including transport and wider areas relating to education, health, environment and planning;
  • Chapter 3 provides an overview of factors influencing school travel choices identified as part of the Literature Review. As noted, the full Literature Review, published alongside this report, provides further detail;
  • Chapter 4 outlines school based travel initiatives in Scotland to encourage more journeys to school to be undertaken by active and sustainable modes. Information is also provided on the impact of these initiatives where evaluations have been undertaken. The literature review published alongside this report includes further information about school based travel initiatives elsewhere in the UK and internationally;
  • Chapters 5 to 8 report on the fieldwork, drawing out the key themes emerging from discussions with different stakeholders; and
  • Chapter 9 summarises the conclusions emerging from the study and outlines key recommendations for consideration.


Email: Veronica Smith

Back to top