by KATE HUNTER
So, our Walking School Bus ran out of parent-shaped petrol.
For those blessedly in the dark about walking school buses and other ‘active school travel’ initiatives, let me fill you in.
A walking school bus is a bunch of kids who walk together to and/or from school, ‘driven’ by volunteer parents. It’s a great way to keep traffic away from schools, teach kids how to cross roads safely and the kids (mostly) enjoy the opportunity to chat with their mates. It’s more fun than listening to Radio National in the backseat.
Together with my friend Liz and a handful of other parents, I ‘drove’ the Walking School Bus on its afterschool route for two years. Then I’d had enough. Liz’s sons moved to another school and no one else stepped up. Why?
It wasn’t the kids, or the walk or the unflattering flouro vests, but the PAPERWORK that did us in. Yes, there is ADMIN involved in walking a bunch of kids around the corner and legal consequences if we got it wrong, so it all became too hard and the volunteers dried up. There was no problem in raising interest, ‘Oh, a walking school bus? I can help with that!’ Mums and dads would say. And then they’d read the fine print.
Walking School Bus leaders must hold a current Blue Card (no arguments there); they must complete a training course (fair enough, roads are dangerous). Then there’s the actual running of the bus. Each ‘passenger’ must be registered and signed in by a teacher. There’s a strict ratio of adults to children so if a leader can’t make it, another accredited leader must be found. The bus cannot depart school without every registered child on board. So if a kid is sick or being collected by Gran and no one has told the leader, no one goes anywhere until that child has been located. Once the AWOL kid is accounted for, it’s guaranteed some other passenger will need to pee, or announces they’ve forgotten their guitar, which must be retrieved to avoid major meltdown. Only then can everyone don a flouro vest. Little ones need to be helped, and reminded that putting a vest on is easier if they put the guitar down.
Finally, with the regulation two blasts of the whistle, the bus departs. The walk to the nearby park takes about 7 minutes. On arrival, leaders must collect all the vests and make sure every child is signed off the bus by a parent or carer. Sometimes, parents are late, so leaders are required to stay with those kids until collects them. If there’s been a serious mix-up, the leader must schlep back up to school with said unattended child (leader must, naturally take his or her own children also).
So, the 7 minute walk takes about 40. No wonder we ran out of puff. And volunteers. It’s all too hard. If it was a matter of just standing near the school gates and saying, ‘Anyone want to walk to the park with us?’ I’d still be doing it, but I can’t. The litigious genie is out of the bottle, and I think communities are suffering.
It’s hard to find volunteers for many things now, because the legalities are getting knottier by the day. Parents don’t want to coach junior sport because they don’t want to be held responsible if a kid turns an ankle – or gets whacked by another kid. Umpiring is worse – you might miss a penalty and there goes the U9 premiership – who’s going to pay for the therapy? Classroom reading requires signing in and signing out, and baking a cake for a fete means listing ingredients on a label in a legible script.
No wonder people say at fete time, ‘Why don’t we just ask every family for a $50 donation and be done with it?’
After school care is no longer a service – it’s a business and it’s booming along with expensive tutoring programs and sports clinics. Kids can’t just muck about at the park (or heaven forbid, the library) after school. Someone has to watch them – a qualified, paid person – because paid generally means insured. Parents are hesitant to mind anyone’s kids but their own, only those whose families they know well. It wasn’t always like that.
A friend lives in an area of Brisbane where there’s a large Sudanese refugee community. The kids aren’t in after-care because mostly, they take care of themselves (no one shooting at them here) and they couldn’t afford it anyway. Last year, some of the boys wanted to join a soccer game being played by their mates who were in after-care. They were told they were welcome, but had to be enrolled in the aftercare program – the school offered to waive the fees, but the boys and their families were baffled – it was a football game in the playground – that’s what kids do, all over the world – why are there forms to fill out?
Kate Hunter is an advertising copywriter with over 20 years experience and one Gruen Transfer appearance to her name. Kate is also the author of the Mosquito Advertising series of novels – The Parfizz Pitch, The Blade Brief and The Crunch Campaign, which see a bunch of Australian kids start their own advertising agency. You can buy them here.
Do you volunteer? Does the paperwork or the fear of being held responsible if something goes wrong put you off?