Segregation: an indulgence we can no longer afford?

It cannot have escaped the attention of anyone using our highways and byways on weekday mornings that with the summer holidays behind us, the dreaded school-run has resumed, with everything that brings with it. Estimates suggest that during the morning rush-hour, home-school travel accounts for 20% of the cars on Northern Ireland’s streets. And then there are the fleets of school buses that once again take to the roads, not to mention quite a few additional taxies!

Apart from a sense of frustration at the time wasted due to increased congestion, air quality suffers at the very times and locations it can do the maximum damage to young lungs. Peak times for road accidents involving children also coincide with school start and finish times. While these adverse effects are felt across NI, our cities are particularly badly affected. Indeed, Belfast has been identified as one of the most congested cities in Europe, a problem that is predicted to cost the NI economy £800 million by 2025.

For most post-primary pupils today, the journey to school is a far cry from when I cycled the relatively short distance from home to Orangefield Boys’ School. The only other traffic I had to contend with consisted mainly of teachers’ cars, and an ancient Douglas flat-twin ridden by the wonderfully eccentric Mr Popplestone.

I remember a lot of bicycles, certainly more than are used today, with only 0.5% of post-primary pupils in NI cycling to school. A recent report shows that there has also been a decline in those who walk to school, down from 22% to 16% in just the last ten years. The number of primary school pupils that walk to school in NI also fell, from almost a third to about a quarter in the same period, almost half as many as in Great Britain.

In England, 2% of 5 to 16-year-olds cycle to school and 44% walk. A recent review of the rates of active travel to school in other developed regions revealed the following ranges: 20%-77.8% in continental Europe; 5%-49% in the US; 19%-33% in Australia, and 15.3%-61.4% in New Zealand. The decline in active school travel in NI is being addressed by initiatives promoting the benefits to health and wellbeing that walking and cycling offer to young people.

The School Streets scheme began in Scotland in 2015 with the aim of making journeys to and from school a safer and more pleasant experience. Selected roads are closed to vehicles during pick-up and drop-off times allowing children to travel safely. Norfolk County Council found that following the introduction of a School Streets programme, there was a 10.9% reduction in car use for school trips. The Council also offer a cycling allowance of up to £200 to any student who qualified for school transport but opted to cycle to school instead, so reducing bus traffic. There are now over 400 School Streets programmes in operation or trialled across Ireland and in every region of the UK, except NI.

There are, of course, good reasons why parents might be hesitant to allow their children to walk or cycle to school in NI. Easily identifiable school uniforms could attract unwelcome attention when passing through certain neighbourhoods, and in some areas footpaths and cycle lanes might be in poor condition or even non-existent. However, the main deterrent to active travel for many in NI is the distance between home and school. It has been estimated that for post-primary pupils this is an average of 6.61 miles. The average distance to school for 5 to 16-year-olds in England is just 2.4 miles, enabling a relatively high uptake of active travel.


Several factors contribute to NI’s high home to school travel figures but the principal two are community segregation and academic selection. With these removed, the average distance post-primary pupils in NI would need to travel to school falls to about the same as that for England, and below the 3-mile threshold required for Department of Education (DE) assistance, representing a substantial saving to the education budget. In its latest Review of School Transport, the DE states that “there are now approximately 84,000 pupils eligible for transport assistance in Northern Ireland. This means that roughly 26% of school pupils are being transported to and from school every day at a cost of nearly £81m per year.”

However, much of the extensive travel undertaken by pupils in NI is facilitated, if not encouraged by the generosity of the DE. For example, if a family living in Comber, Co. Down, wished to send their Year 8 son to a Catholic Maintained grammar school, the EA’s online Home to School Transport Eligibility Checker would inform them that “…from your home address to Aquinas Grammar School, Belfast, you would be eligible for transport assistance” because, “there are no closer schools of the same category within the qualifying distance to your home address” (emphasis added).

Aquinas is 10 miles from Comber and there are 17 schools that are closer or at an equal distance, albeit of a different category:

  1. Nendrum College (0 miles)
  2. Regent House (4 miles)
  3. Movilla High (4.9 miles)
  4. Our Lady and St Patrick’s College (6 miles)
  5. Ashfield Girls’ (6.5 miles)
  6. Lagan College (6.7 miles)
  7. Bloomfield Collegiate (6.8 miles)
  8. Strathern (7.3 miles)
  9. Campbell College (7.3 miles)
  10. Ashfield Boys’ (7.9 miles)
  11. Grosvenor (8.4 miles)
  12. Breda Academy (9.1m)
  13. Glenlola Collegiate (9.4 miles)
  14. Bangor Academy (9.8 miles)
  15. Holywood Steiner (9.8 miles)
  16. Dundonald High (10 miles)
  17. St Joseph’s College (10 miles)

Notwithstanding that the estimated 144 million extra travel miles per year contributes an additional 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, at a time when bus passes for the elderly are under review, can we really afford to bus children the length and breadth of NI in pursut of an education segregated by gender, religious affiliation, or academic selection?

The School of Education at Ulster University has produced an insightful body of work on NI’s fragmented education system. These generally conclude that the best solution would be to move towards local cross-community comprehensive post-primary schools.

Roulston, S. and Cook, S., 2021. Home-school travel in a divided education system: at what cost?

Roulston, S. and Cook, S., 2023. Using GIS analysis to examine home-school travel in a divided education system: the case of Northern Ireland.

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