So you want a healthy school street

One of my most popular tweets ever is the one which includes four pictures of Sebert Road in my ward. Two of these photos are from before our school street timed closure, and two from after it was installed. You can read my blog post about the idea here.

This road is the one on which my local Infants school is situated, and is the main route to walk into Forest Gate, and to the station, for large numbers of people who live not only on Sebert Road itself, but on the various residential roads which come off it. I have spent many hours of my life on Sebert Road:  dragging / chasing children along, pushing pushchairs, chastising toddlers, carrying shopping, coaxing, cajoling, shouting, singing, skipping, running home as a baby wailed, or pushing the buggy grimly on through rain or hail or gail.

Quite apart from the various challenges life throws at you when your children are small, the traffic on Sebert Road has always made this journey much more stressful than it had to be, and particularly at school drop-off and pick-up when the traffic was briefly terrible. From speeding cars, to cars stuck bumper to bumper, to cars getting stuck between parked cars, and drivers getting out to shout at each other, to watching the head teacher fighting a daily battle to remind parents not to pull up on the zigzags outside the school, “No, not even just for a moment.”

So I suppose it’s not surprising that a tweet showing, in a series of pictures, the difference that a timed closure can make, has been a (for me) relatively successful one.

But I realised recently that I’m often asked by people how they can have a similar closure around their school. The short answer might be that it all depends on the willingness of your Council to make the necessary traffic orders, but I also realised that even if no school street is planned, or if one is coming but not immediately, or if your local council is doing other school streets and may come to yours soon… there is still quite a lot that local people can do, be they councillors, parents, teachers, residents, to help garner support, and to nudge things along. And actually those things apply not only in Forest Gate North, but in Newham, and indeed anywhere there is a school, a road, and a desire for the school run to be safer and better.

Sadly, the whole list currently comes with an enormous Covid-19 caveat. Some of the things I’m suggesting will be possible at the moment if you live in a part of the country not currently on Tier 2 restrictions. Some of these things I share in a spirit of optimism, thinking that they might be possible in the future. Some of them are still possible regardless. So please take this list as a set of suggestions to spark your own ideas, and of course make your own assessments about what is safe or not, and make keeping yourself and others as safe as possible your priority.

But with that lengthy preamble, here is my blog post:

10 things you can do to get your very own Healthy School Street timed road closure

  1. Write to your local councillors
    This is probably the first and easiest thing you should do. Just in case you’re not already a regular correspondent with your local councillors, you can look them up here: councillor support isn’t a magic bullet, but it really can help. You can send an email to all of your local councillors, highlighting the school where you think there should be a school street closure. You could include pictures of what traffic is like, and even offer to meet them there at drop-off time to witness it themselves. It is really helpful for councillors to know that they have residents who want things to change, and actually in general I always find it really bolstering and encouraging when I hear from residents with ideas.
  2. Write to your Mayor and Cabinet lead
    Depending on where you live, this might be the leader of your Council, a Mayor, or whoever is the political lead. Here in Newham, that means writing to Rokhsana Fiaz (directly elected Mayor of Newham) and James Asser (Cabinet lead for Sustainable Transport and Environment).If your local authority already has school streets in place, then name these, explain why you support them, and then explain why you think the school you’re concerned about would be a good place to expand the scheme.If your local authority doesn’t yet, then talk about how many school streets are already in place across London and indeed across the UK. Make the case for why your school should be the first one in your authority.
  3. Understand how school streets work
    This might sound dull, but if you are really interested in making this happen, it’s worth taking a bit of time to really get your head around how the detail of a closure works. How they are done varies from authority to authority. Here in Newham, they are enforced by camera, but elsewhere people physically go out and unlock and raise bollards, or pull temporary barriers across the road. Understand who is exempt, and how exemptions work in your authority. What is the impact on local residents, within the closure, and just outside it? I was advising a resident last year who lives on Sebert Road, but just outside the zone, that if her car is parked inside the zone she can drive it out, but she shouldn’t drive into the zone and park during the hours of closure.Taking the time to get your head around these kind of details will mean that if you want to have more detailed conversations with local people, you can do so from a place of knowledge, and not make promises or assurances that turn out not to be true.
  4. Speak to your head teacher
    It’s a sad fact that most of the head teachers I have come across spend time most days negotiating with parents to try to encourage better driver behaviour outside their school. That’s mental energy that could be very usefully expended doing literally almost anything else.Have a chat with your head teacher and ask if they are aware of the programme of school streets closures. Are they in touch with the Council already? Have they requested one?They might be concerned about the impact on staff who drive to work (this isn’t an insurmountable problem, but could be an issue, and is better talked about openly at the start). When planning our school street we discussed how most staff who drive arrive before the closure, but in the event of someone being late, they would need to park outside the closure area, and we weighed the impact of this against the benefits to the whole school of a quiet road.Chat about the impacts: not just cleaner air and safer streets but also how a school street can encourage behaviour change, how a quiet road can be a pleasant and peaceful start to the day, how now in times of Covid a closed road provides safer spaces for social distancing.
  5. Get parents to sign a petition
    I have to admit I’m not an instinctive supporter of petitions as a tool for campaigning: I think they can sometimes be a bit simplistic, even antagonistic! But in some cases they can be useful, and I think here there is a case for creating a petition for parents to sign showing that they would like to have a school street road closure. The main reason this could be useful is because gaining signatures for it enables conversations about a school street, and about the potential benefits. It not only helps you to raise awareness, but also helps to identify who your champions might be. A petition could be the beginnings of a campaign group.Equally, you can have very productive and useful conversations with people who don’t wish to sign: understanding any people who are opposed to the idea, talking through their concerns, and thinking about any negative impacts, is a very helpful thing to do, and the earlier you have these conversations, the better.If you are a parent at a school then you probably have a reasonable idea about who the opinion formers are! Does your school have a PTA? A set of unofficial whatsapp groups? Identify the people who run those and speak to them early on.
  6. Speak to the governors
    It is also helpful to know who your school governors are, and to speak to them about a school street. Governors are yet another set of unsung heroes of our education system: giving up their time and expertise on a voluntary basis to work with the head and the leadership team, supporting and helping to improve, and being a critical friend.Your school will have parent governors, who might be a good starting point. Depending on how the conversation with your head teacher goes, you could ask the Chair of Governors if you could come to a governors’ meeting and talk about school streets. If the governors were really keen they could put together a joint letter to the leads at the Council for Education, and Highways, asking for a closure.
  7. Speak to local residents
    Ok, so you have contacted your councillors, your Mayor, your head, all the parents, the governors, and they are all on board and passionate, but you have excess energy and want to do MORE.Before our school street came into operation, some local Labour party members made our own leaflet about the closure, and we door knocked down Sebert Road to talk to the local residents who would be most affected by the closure. Door knocking is time consuming, but it was so worthwhile doing it.Obviously this is all pre-Covid, and there is certainly no party political door knocking going on at the moment. But if you are reading this in the post-Covid utopia that we are all hoping for, then get out there and door knock.  And if you are reading this during Covid times, and you can find a safe and responsible way to speak directly to local residents living right by the school, I would definitely recommend doing it. We found the most local residents were the people who were most familiar with the localised traffic problems at the beginning and end of the school day, and were some of our most passionate supporters.
  8. Encourage cycling at your school
    There is lots that you can do to encourage people to cycle to your school. Whilst plenty of Londoners in particular don’t have space to keep a bike, there are many more that do have a bike but don’t use it often, or who would like to cycle more, but are feeling uncertain.Some small steps you can take might be to ask your neighbours or friends if they want to cycle to school with you. You could talk to the school about what they are doing to encourage cycling. How much storage do they have for bicycles? Might they open the playground after school one day to allow children to cycle on the tarmac? Do they have any learn to ride, or bikeability sessions planned? Would they consider allowing adult learners to use the playground? Could you hold a cycle maintenance workshop before or after school one day?If you are in Newham, talk to Newham Cyclists about your ideas, and see if they have any suggestions. They are a small but very dedicated group, and have plenty of contacts. If you’re not in Newham, you may well have a local equivalent, and you might find that its members are potential advocates for a school street.
  9. Encourage walking
    Not everyone wants to cycle, and the great thing about London schools is that the population is so dense, most families live close to school, so walking is not just possible but probably faster than getting to school by car.If you want to help encourage more children to walk, you could chat to the school about their plans, and ask if you could work together. You could organise a walk to school challenge, and ask the school to do a daily show of hands and a tally to show how many people walked in that day. Have a chat to fellow parents and find out what stops them walking to school. Is it concerns about road safety? Get them to sign your petition! Is it distance? Would they try walking for a day or two and see how it goes? Are they worried about the weather? Chat with the school about whether they have space for children to store wellington boots during the day.Understanding some of the reasons why some people don’t currently walk, and thinking through whether any of those are things you could do something about, is great preparation for a school street closure.
  10. Hold a play street
    I am a big fan of play streets generally, for lots of reasons. But I think there can be something particularly powerful about a play street right by a school, as it helps everyone involved to visualise what it might look like if that road was closed, and could help to build momentum and support for a timed closure.If you held a one-off play street, you could arrange for lots of the things above to happen at the same time: invite local councillors, and the lead for transport, to come along. See if you could get someone doing some basic bike maintenance for you. Have a small stall with your petition, and some volunteers to get more signatures. Would your PTA like to be there, to encourage parents to get involved and to sign up to volunteer?

And that’s all ten. I may write some more in future about how to help make a school street work (clue: there is a lot of crossover with the ideas above!) but I think that’s more than enough for the moment. I hope this is inspiring and helpful. If you are in Forest Gate North and want further school streets closures, please do contact me as I would be happy to advocate for you, and to help you with the above! If you’re outside Forest Gate but want someone to chat to and bounce ideas off, ditto, drop me a line.

I need to add that when it comes to school streets, I am not a pioneer, but an enthusiastic follower in the footsteps of other organisations who led the way. School streets had been implemented in Hackney, Islington, Waltham Forest and many other places before we got on board here in Newham.

Organisations like Mums for Lungs, also Living Streets, have been campaigning for them for years and I would highly recommend looking at their websites and the information they publish, particularly the Mums for Lungs campaigning guide, and Living Streets’ toolkit, as well as this brilliant website: which has lots of helpful information about the ‘why’, ‘how’ and existing schemes.

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