Tackling the school run: research study

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

Chapter 8 - Cultural and Social Attitudes


This chapter considers the cultural and social attitudes with a direct influence on school travel choices and perceptions. These are particularly relevant from a school, parent and pupil perspective.

School Culture

Active Schools

A number of case study schools were considered to be particularly physically active schools with one mentioning they had recently been awarded the Gold Award from Sports Scotland for excellence and participation in Physical Education. This was mentioned by a number of school staff, pupils and/or local authority stakeholders. They noted that these schools promoted health and well-being and fitness (in addition to active travel), often offering a wide range of sports based activities both during and outwith the school day, entering sporting competitions, and regularly participating in wider community events (such as cycling and charity/fun run events, etc.). As such, promoting active travel across the school was considered to fit well within the overall school ethos and contributed to normalising such behaviour. In terms of impact, the research did not identify a direct relationship between levels of active travel and physical activity with other factors such as distance and convenience having an influence on school travel choices. As noted previously, physical activity related initiatives can also be to the detriment of participation in school based active travel initiatives with the perception one is exclusive to the other.

A wider cultural aspect was also noted by one school in an urban area whereby public transport was used as far as possible instead of hiring a private bus for school trips. The opportunity to do this would, however, be influenced by the availability of services and, in turn, location becomes a potential factor with this being potentially more an option in urban settings.

"We have a lot of sports and do a lot of competitions as well." (Primary Pupil)

"This school is a very active school…around the whole school we have had about 15 [sports] tournaments…" (Primary Pupil)

"The pupils are quite naturally fit and want to walk." (Secondary School Staff)

Travel Champions

Perhaps more important than the overall culture and ethos of the school itself is the level of engagement and motivation of particular staff (or 'champions') within the school. A number of school staff, pupils and wider stakeholders identified one of the main key drivers of success to be the enthusiasm of a local champion.

Travel champions were considered to be the motivated and enthusiastic driving force within the school, and were responsible for getting initiatives up and running, and for sustaining ongoing interest and effort. In some of the case study schools this champion was the Head Teacher or the Deputy Head, however, in others the responsibility was delegated to other staff (typically a classroom teacher) either due to their level of experience or their own personal interest in active travel. It should be noted however, that it would appear, from the case studies investigated at least, that individual self-motivation/enthusiasm was more pertinent to drive forward active travel initiatives rather than the position of staff more widely within the school.

However, it also appears that this responsibility often lies with just one individual within a school, which was considered to bring both benefits and challenges. The benefits included the ability to create clear lines of communication and responsibility both within the school and between the school and other partners, such as the local authority or those implementing national initiatives ( e.g. Living Streets, Cycling Scotland or Sustrans). On the other hand, only having one champion per school introduces the risk that, should they leave that school, it may be difficult to maintain engagement with initiatives. There was potential to mitigate this to some extent through, for example, all school staff being involved on a rota basis at one school to participate in the weekly walking groups as part of the WOW initiative.

"It's always really good when you have a key member of staff in the school, because they're the driving force, and the person you know to contact, but also it is quite fragile if there is only one person that you're speaking to." (Local Authority Staff)

"It's always a shame when you've just got one key contact, because if they leave…all the good work leaves with them." (Local Authority Staff)

"It's engaging with the schools and getting them on board. You need somebody in the school to be positive and receptive to the changes or the idea. If you don't have that then it's a hard battle. You can't force anything on them, they have to take it on board willingly and they have to have the time commitment." (Local Authority Staff)

"You find if somebody's left as well, there's no guarantees from one year to the next that they'll [the school will] still be involved. You'll find that if it's been that one person's been very involved in it… and then that person leaves and there's nobody there to keep motivating them, then it doesn't get done." (Local Authority Staff)

The competitiveness of the school, and also the travel champion was noted in one school as a key factor driving forward initiatives and motivating others. Both the staff member themselves and pupils at the school commented on this individual's competitive nature, and considered that this spurred the rest of the school on.

"Our Deputy Head Teacher [the travel champion] is very competitive." (Primary Pupil)

Peer Involvement and Communication

Most case study schools indicated that they tried, as far as was practical, to encourage their pupils to take responsibility for certain initiatives. This included the creation of a number of road safety, travel and eco committees/groups, which either consisted of a mix of school staff and pupils, or was entirely managed by the pupils (albeit with one teacher assisting and overseeing activities). The activities of these groups ranged from input to the design and development of School Travel Plans and initiatives, to encouraging other pupils to participate in active travel initiatives, and, in some cases, gathering travel data. In addition, most primary schools also participated in the JRSO scheme, which provided direct peer learning/teaching.

Pupil involvement in the design of initiatives (or elements of these) was also considered as highly valuable. It was noted that, in many cases the ideas generated for tackling certain issues were unrealistic, but conversely, school staff noted that pupils also had many good ideas and had a greater awareness of how best to engage with other pupils to create enthusiasm and buy-in across the school. A number of schools had also encouraged pupils to design certain campaign materials, as well as badges/pins which were distributed to pupils during initiatives.

Similarly, a number of the case study schools noted that they had an active Parent Council/Parent Teacher Association ( PTA) who were pro-active in pushing travel related issues at the school. These were typically raised due to road safety concerns rather than a desire to advance active travel, however, this was often a knock-on effect when tackling car use around the schools.

Some pro-active Parent Councils/ PTAs also provided valuable input to some initiatives, and helped to disseminate 'the message' to other parents. Some had assisted the school in tackling parking problems by patrolling car parks/the area directly outside the school, or by confronting parking offenders and highlighting the issues with them directly. This peer approach was considered, in certain situations at least, to be more effective than school staff tackling the issues in isolation.

The importance of full and active engagement of different parts of the school community is highlighted in other programmes, including walk to school programmes in the USA and Canada. Active participation by staff, pupils and parents is considered to be an instrumental element to the successful delivery of initiatives.

Social Attitudes

Normalising Active Travel Choices

A number of school staff and local authority staff noted than one of the biggest challenges facing schools in impacting upon car use for the school run was the wider social culture around reliance upon cars. They considered that more needed to be done at the national and/or community levels to normalise walking and cycling for both the school run and more generally, and that this was not something that schools could tackle alone. It was also commented by parents in particular that raising awareness of initiatives and their benefits could help change general attitudes with one noting potential exploration of the success around campaigns on behaviours and cultural norms such as those against smoking, drink driving and to promote wearing a seatbelt while driving.

"It's just trying to make it normal I suppose. Making it normal to walk and cycle rather than drive, but that takes years." (Local Authority Staff)

"The older generation would just walk the kids to school… but now people are more used to just jumping in the car… It's become the norm. Whereas before, nobody had a car so everybody walked. Once you get into the habit of driving somewhere you don't think to walk." (Local Authority Staff)

"Active travel is an everyday activity which is embedded rather than exclusively about health. It is important the health dimension is not just parachuted in. Being active is a habit and lifestyle choice." (Stakeholder)

Parental Travel Behaviour

Parental influence in terms of attitudes towards sustainable transport was recognised by school staff and stakeholders as well as parents themselves. One school staff member observed that it is culture and upbringing which influences whether pupils walk or not. This sentiment was echoed by a stakeholder who felt that being active was part of everyday life and not something unique. Generally, parents recognised they had a role to play in encouraging more sustainable travel and there was also recognition that others, such as local authorities and Government had an influence.

"I think it tends to be a part culture and part upbringing thing…so that you will walk and that walking to school is not particularly seen as a hardship, a lot of them (pupils) have done it since primary." (Secondary School Staff)

Family lifestyle and wider commitments were an apparent factor. The need to juggle the school drop-off/pick-up with other responsibilities around work was a particular factor and rationale for parents in their choices and views on different travel options.

"You travel with car two days because I drop you off a breakfast club and pick you up in an after school club and go to work straight after that. In the other days you scoot / bike because it healthier and we are not living very far away and it is easier then to park the car." (Primary School Parent)

The impact of behaviour change on the wider family unit was highlighted in one of the pupil group discussions by a secondary pupil whose father, following an active travel promotion event at his work, planned to park elsewhere and cycle to work. As a result, the pupil and her sister would walk a little further to school each day.

Time, convenience and the need for onward travel (either for work or other purposes) were also felt to be major factors influencing choices. This was observed by pupils as well as confirmed by parents:

"Sometimes our primary would have weeks where they would see how many people would walk, so my Mum would drop us a wee while away from the school and we would walk part of the way, but most of the time it was (the car) because my Mum was on her way to work so just dropped us off." (Secondary Pupil)

"I think they [car, bus and train] are a timesaver, but it kind of keep you unfit." (Primary Pupil)

Active Travel

Discussions in the pupil focus groups elicited some emerging views about different modes of transport. For example, a number of pupils indicated that they actually disliked travelling in a car to school. For some, this was due to practical reasons, such as motion sickness, but most stated that it was 'boring'. This was generally attributed to the limited/lack of social interaction, either with friends or with parents. This said, at one of the schools a pupil expressed a desire to be driven to school, although the location and wider geography of the area could also be an influencing factor.

Further to this, a small number of children noted that walking was preferable to travelling by public transport as services can be late and unreliable which was also reflective in some wider perceptions expressed about different modes. There was also some concern about getting off at the wrong stop and becoming lost if using a bus or train. One of the pupils also commented on observations of transport infrastructure from their experiences outside Scotland.

"I don't like taking the car, I think it is a bit boring." (Primary Pupil)

"I do feel a bit guilty when I get to school, cos I see everyone else walking." (Primary Pupil)

"If I was 17 and could drive, I'd rather drive. Driving's more enjoyable." (Secondary Pupil)

"The roads and transport around here are pretty good…though the buses aren't great, they run late, get stuck on the road and make a lot of potholes. Sometimes when the bus is cancelled, Dad has to come back from work and take us to school." (Secondary Pupil)

"I think cycle lanes is a big thing to make cycling more obvious and a lot easier. We went to the Netherlands on holiday, and although it is a lot faster, it was a lot more easier." (Secondary Pupil)

Perceptions of Safety

As noted in Chapter 7, safety was a recurring factor influencing school travel choices, with parking pressure at pick-up and drop-off times, and associated congestion a specific factor. From an attitudinal point of view, the safety aspect was also noted to have been evidenced more widely through, for example, parental perceptions tracked as part of the Give Everyone Cycle Space campaign. The perception of danger was identified as a strong voice with an impact on the independence of primary school pupils in particular.

Initiatives which instil safe behaviour through training were considered as giving parents increased confidence. For example, Bikeability was highlighted by one school staff member as providing parents with reassurance about the standard of their child's cycling ability. This was confirmed by some parents.

Parental engagement was also felt to be key to address safety concerns through, for example, encouraging Parent Councils to contribute to the School Travel Plan and to ask for parent volunteers to help deliver Bikeability training to "obtain a parent voice". The direct involvement of parents was considered to play a powerful role in helping to negate perceptions around safety, and also assist with the communication of information and messages to the wider parent community at schools. It was also felt that wider appreciation was required of parental contribution to the very issues they were concerned about and again the parent to parent engagement was powerful in this regard.

As well as taking measures at the pupil level, one stakeholder also highlighted that another route to address parental perception is directly tackling their own confidence around cycling. Cycling Scotland is currently piloting a number of Bikeability Plus modules, based on those developed by the DfT sponsored Bikeability Plus scheme. These include Bikeability Parents, where parents attend cycle training sessions along with their children. This initiative is currently being piloted, including a pilot in Dunblane (although not at the case study school included in this research) which has proven very popular, with the outcomes due to report in the summer.

As mentioned in Chapter 7, some pupils expressed concern about safety, particularly in relation to cycling and provision for routes:

"It depends …cycling can sometimes be a bit dangerous as there are not than many cycling paths." (Secondary Pupil)

Similar safety concerns were also noted for pupils who walked to school (or had the potential to walk). Many school staff and pupils across the case study schools highlighted the lack of safe crossing points, busy roads and roundabouts to navigate, the volume of traffic and parking around the school as key issues for certain routes to their schools. The availability of safe routes, particularly those that were off-road, were considered as highly beneficial, and encouraged parents to feel comfortable in allowing their children to walk to school.

"My mum lets me walk to school by myself a bit more often because she now trusts that there is less of a chance that I will get knocked over." (Primary Pupil)

Safety was also identified as a factor in the levels of uptake of walking and cycling in the literature review. Work by Lorenc et al. (2008) also noted an interesting point where an over-emphasis on safety issues may serve to discourage cycling and walking by focusing on walking and cycling and initiatives should also aim to help parents understand more about the benefits of walking and cycling.

Health and Well-Being

There was a general consensus from pupils that walking and cycling was healthier, provided exercise, fresh air, freedom, and allowed them to wake-up in the morning so they were ready to concentrate at school. The health aspect was also commented on by parents of both primary and secondary pupils. This was also reflected in other studies, including work by Kirkby and Inchley (2009) involving focus group discussions in primary and secondary schools in Scotland as reported in the GCPH study (2012).

"I would say good, because it gets people to be more active." (Primary Pupil)

"Waking exercises me as I don't really do much at home" (Primary Pupil)

"I find that it wakes me up a bit because of the fresh air." (Primary Pupil)

"If you get a lift you're still tired in the morning, whereas if you get the fresh air in the morning then you wake up." (Secondary Pupil).

"It encourages you to be healthy, and less lazy, and more social because it gives you time to socialise." (Secondary Pupil)

"Because we live far away but want to be healthy at the same time." (Primary Pupil Parent)

"It (walking) is healthy, good for him and keeps him fit." (Secondary School Parent)

Socialising with Friends

For many pupils the journey to school provided the opportunity for socialising which was also recognised by parents and also other studies as reported in the GCPH work (2012). This was linked to the ability to talk with friends, siblings, or with their parents, particularly for those who walked:

"I think walking to school is kind of good with friends because before school you can kind of talk to your friends…and carry on before the Head Teacher sees you." (Primary Pupil)

"I like walking because I can chat with my friends" (Primary Pupil)

"I think it's better if you walk in a group, it's more fun because you can talk to them along the way." (Secondary Pupil)

"It is healthier and you meet your friends and walk with them." (Secondary School Pupil)

Those who cycled with friends also enjoyed the social aspect, although this was less about the ability to have conversations and more about shared fun:

"The way I come brings me past a skate park so I'll sometimes go there for a few minutes." (Secondary Pupil)

Awareness of Environmental Impacts

A number of pupils, at both primary and secondary schools included in the research, noted walking and cycling to school, and also to lesser extent using the bus, was better for the environment than being driven.

"It's good to get there quicker if you live quite far away, except if you live close then you don't need to get driven as it produces more pollution." (Primary Pupil)

"The cars not great because it can only carry about 7 people max, but bus and train can carry hundreds of people without burning very much fuel compared to the car." (Primary Pupil)

"I would say they [car and bus] are 50/50, it's good when it's raining or really far away, but it's kind of bad because of pollution to the atmosphere, it's really easy just to walk." (Primary School Pupil)

Although pupils were very aware of environmental issues and reasons for the promotion of walking and cycling, it was not clear how much of an impact this truly had on the decision making process regarding mode choice. Pupils were certainly able to make the links between different travel modes and environmental issues, however, they noted these to a lesser extent as having been considered at the point of choosing between modes. This was also generally reflective from a parent perspective as well as with, as noted, distance, convenience, time and health more apparent factors influencing decisions. The GCPH (2012) reported on work by Kirkby and Inchley (2009) which identified environmental factors to have an influence on school travel choices.


Gender was asked about, but not a central focus of the study. In the discussions gender was not found to be a major factor in travel choices for pupils, and although some initiatives were targeted at particular age groups, almost all were targeted at both boys and girls. Indeed, most schools indicated that boys and girls engaged to the same extent, regardless of the initiative.

However, there were a few exceptions noted at both the primary and secondary schools included in the fieldwork. Although there were no noted differences by gender within primary schools around rates of cycling, with girls appearing as equally engaged and enthusiastic about cycling initiatives and riding their bike to school as boys, there did appear to be more of a spilt at the secondary school level. Typically, boys were more likely to cycle to school than girls. Similarly, it was observed by one school that the boys appeared to want to walk more than the girls. It should be noted however, that this may have been an isolated case, as no other case study school observed this, and typically, boys and girls were equally as enthusiastic about walking to school.

There is an extensive body of research which explores in more detail the relationship between girls' adolescence and participation in sport, and active travel. For example, Steinbach et al (2011) explored the relationship between the low visible levels of cycling in the public and the impact on levels of cycling amongst women and ethnic minorities.

It is likely that a number of factors would contribute to the lower levels of interest in cycling exhibited by secondary school girls. The scope of this research was, however, not extensive or detailed enough to identify the presence or interplay between possible reasons.

"The boys want to walk and they want the freedom [more than] the girls, there is a definite gender imbalance as such, the boys want more freedom and tend to be given it through that [walking]." (Primary School Staff)

Whilst only limited evidence was presented in the research for gender bias around travel choices or initiatives, one parent did identify an important gender based impact in the attempts to tackle car use for the school run. They noted that they believed that the school run was typically the responsibility of women, and that there are increasing pressures on women to work and juggle childcare commitments, and therefore, any attempts to reduce car use for school travel disproportionately penalises women. Other studies, including a review of walking buses in New Zealand by Collins and Kearns (2010), observed that mothers were usually the driving factor. Also, a study by the University of California Transportation Centre highlighted that women were more likely to undertake child serving (school run) and household serving (grocery shopping) trips and identified gender cultural norms to have an influence in terms of shaping activity and travel patterns.

"There's the fundamental issue of parents going to work and dropping their kids off on the way…Particularly for women, to have another thing landed on them, so as well as having to do everything else, you've got to then think about getting your kids to school some other way and then that's going to make you late for work, as well as everything else you have to do first thing in the morning." (Primary Pupil Parent)


School culture plays an important part in developing travel behaviour change success among its pupils. The overall ethos of the school is important, along with championing staff and engaged pupils taking responsibility for developing/leading initiatives.

Parental attitudes are equally important, but often considered to present a key challenge in changing pupil travel behaviour. Safety concerns, time, convenience and onward travel needs were often cited as reasons for parents to drive pupils to school. However, it was also noted that more general cultural/social attitudes towards driving/walking were engrained in society, making any behaviour change more difficult to realise. It appears schools require wider support in order to normalise walking and cycling, both to school and more generally.


Email: Veronica Smith

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