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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: Westminster’s back-to-school omnishambles

London’s school-run traffic is reminiscent of a Tory government that takes a long time to get nowhere

Image: The New European

As the new school term started, the omnishambles du jour came from crumbling buildings, a swearing education secretary, and Rishi Sunak looking ever more like a hyperactive children’s TV presenter as he tried to assure the nation he was doing a fucking good job, not sitting on his arse at all.

However, on Crumbling Concreteland, for now, enough said. It is another element of the school return I would like to highlight. Driving kids to school.

In some rural areas, with poor bus services, I get it. In big cities, I don’t. I live in the UK’s biggest city, London. NW3 to be precise, which has one of the highest, if not the highest, proportions of kids in private schools in the entire country. It meant that as the schools reopened, roads that are always fairly busy became virtually unusable. “Quicker to walk” for once was true rather than a figure of speech.

Even after all the fuss over Ulez, and the debate about air quality, it seems that for many private school users, despite London having the best public transport system in the country, there is no alternative but to pack the kids into the back of a gas-guzzler and drive them a few miles to school.

My Tuesday morning tweet provoked a lot of reaction: “Schools are back and north London traffic absolutely off the scale. Imagine how much healthier, happier and better educated we would all be if in all urban areas all parents sent their children to local schools within walking distance, which were supported by the entire community. Instead of which we destroy air quality whilst simultaneously perpetuating a system designed to increase rather than address the issues of chronic inequality which are at the heart of Britain’s current malaise and decline.”

Some, predictably, explained that they had no choice but to use private schools, because the state schools most had never used were not good enough for their children. But more interestingly, in came a welter of examples of a very different approach in other parts of the world.

In Switzerland, where, from their second day, children are encouraged to walk to and from school, parents are encouraged not to accompany them beyond the end of their own road, and where the police coach children on road safety alongside a “back to school blitz” on bad drivers.

The same expectations in Denmark. Then there’s the Netherlands, where 93% of children live within walking or cycling distance of school, and so walk or cycle, with their network of cycle lanes a huge advantage. Best of all, also Dutch, someone sent me video of something called the Bicco Bike Bus – nine kids in Nijmegen cycling the same vehicle to school, one adult at the wheel.

One of the private school drop-off drivers said they couldn’t let their kids walk to school – because they worried about the traffic! However, as I always try to say to myself when sitting in a jam on the rare occasions I drive in London – we ARE the traffic!

I liked this one from Peter Day. “We walk our daughter to school. It’s a daily round trip of 3.5 miles. It gets us out and about. We talk about life, nature and the environment, hopes and dreams AND it is quicker than driving. We pass hundreds of going-nowhere cars.”

Needless to say, the best suggestion related to Finland, which, along with Canada, regularly rates as having the best schools in the world. “Do as in Finland,” suggested Mark Stubbs. “No private schools allowed. All schools about the same level. Children go to the nearest one.” And if you’re wondering why Canada is so good, might that be because they too have next to no private schools at all?

Similar theme if I may. Since the Tories won the Uxbridge by-election by weaponising the Ulez policy first introduced by Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak is missing no opportunity to distance himself from what another Tory PM, David Cameron, called “the green crap”.

The government has a stated objective to get more of us walking and cycling, not least to help address the environmental crisis, the obesity crisis – which is becoming an ever bigger drain on the NHS – and the cost of living crisis too, since walking and cycling are cheaper than other modes of travel.

The Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist Chris Boardman, having helped Manchester mayor Andy Burnham get more people cycling and walking, was last year appointed national active travel commissioner to get the whole country doing it.

But the transport secretary, Mark Harper, is now under pressure from No 10 to block any plans from Active Travel England that might lead to restrictions on cars, which kind of defeats the object.

Uxbridge persuaded Sunak and his Aussie string-pullers that a “Tory pro-car v Labour pro-‘green crap’” dividing line is a nice little wedge issue as he seeks to cling to power.

He has come a long way since running for the top job and telling us he was motivated by his two daughters constantly badgering him to do more about climate change. Power can do funny things to people. So can the fear of losing it. He may find, however, that his volte-face on the environment accelerates that process, rather than halts it.

Future Tory and Labour parliamentary candidates gathered together in the wonderful setting of the Ditchley Foundation HQ in Oxfordshire for a couple of days’ immersion in issues of defence, diplomacy and development, and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting them.

I was struck by the question from a Tory hopeful about what more could be done to break down the tribalism she felt gets in the way of proper cross-party work to address common problems. There was a seriousness to the group that I liked, and which felt very different to the dominant political strain of recent years.

Then, to a very different gathering, which also gave me a bit more hope about the future. Debate Mate, in which Gary Neville and I led two teams of young people debating the state of politics. Though all of us could point to lots that was wrong with politics, at least there was an understanding of how much it mattered, and a determination among the young debaters that they would be part of the change that is needed.

I found myself seated next to performance artist Marina Abramović at a dinner to celebrate the 60th birthday of designer Ben Evans. If you are unaware of her work, check it out ahead of her exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London later this month. Pretty amazing. Very clever. Definitely worth a visit.

She also delights in telling jokes. You might like this one: “Putin visits a school in Russia. He does a talk to the children. Then he asks for questions. A boy called Sasha asks him: “I have two questions, Mr President. Why did you invade Ukraine? And why are you killing Ukrainians?” Before Putin can answer, the school bell rings and the children are told it is break time.

“They come back in 15 minutes later. This time a girl raises her hand. “I have four questions, Mr President. One, why did you invade Ukraine? Two, why are you killing Ukrainians? Three, why did the bell ring for the break when you were asked a difficult question? And where is Sasha?”

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