Children across Northern Ireland set off to school on foot or using their own wheels this morning to compete with pupils across the UK in the largest inter-school competition.
Sustrans Big Walk and Wheel, which runs from 21 March to 1 April 2022, aims to inspire hundreds of thousands of children from both primary and secondary schools to get active on the school run by making the most journeys by cycling, walking, scooting or using a wheelchair.
Organised by the walking and cycling charity Sustrans, the Big Pedal had been running for 11 years but as it had grown to become much more than a cycling competition, schools helped rename it the Sustrans Big Walk & Wheel to reflect the various modes of travel.
More children than ever are being driven to school in Northern Ireland, with the number of primary school pupils being driven increasing in the past six years from 59% to 68% - despite many living less than a mile from their school.
Incorporating physical activity into daily routines, such as the school run, can help improve both physical and mental health. Sadly, more than a quarter of children in Northern Ireland are overweight or obese.
Schools in Northern Ireland always embrace the competition and frequently win categories and feature highly in the leader-boards. It is seen as the highlight of Sustrans Active School Travel Programme, funded jointly by the Public Health Agency and the Department for Infrastructure, although schools don’t have to be involved in the programme to take part.
The importance of increasing active travel on the school run meant all three Executive Ministers - Infrastructure, Health and Education - came together at Kilcooley Primary School to help launch this year’s Sustrans Big Walk & Wheel competition.
Kilcooley Primary joined the Active School Travel Programme in September 2018. In their first year of engagement with Sustrans, the number of children walking, wheeling and cycling to school increased from 66% to 82%.
Principal of Kilcooley Primary, Mrs Pauline Brown said: “We are really thrilled that Kilcooley pupils and parents are taking part in this year’s Big Walk and Wheel and it is wonderful to see the politicians support this competition.
“We’ve been working with Sustrans for a number of years and the programme has helped encourage more pupils to travel actively to school.
“The pupils enjoy participating in cycle skills workshops and bicycle maintenance sessions which are delivered by Iain Sneddon, our Sustrans Active Travel Officer. It has helped to ease congestion at the school gates and our pupils arrive alert and ready for the school day."
Beth Harding, Sustrans Active School Travel Manager, said: “We’re delighted to welcome all three Executive Ministers this morning to help launch the Sustrans Big Walk and Wheel in Northern Ireland. It is wonderful to have their support for what is a hugely important cross-departmental issue.
“More people travelling actively for essential everyday journeys such as the school run means fewer cars on the road, helping to ease congestion, educe air pollution around school gates and encourage healthier, more independent children.”
Health Minister Robin Swann said: “It’s important that children are introduced to a culture of being active from an early age as it is something that will benefit them throughout their lives. Being physically active helps children to build strong bones, muscles and a healthy heart, encourages a sense of wellbeing and improves concentration when in class.
“I would encourage parents, where possible, to make walking, wheeling or cycling to school part of their daily routine with their children.”
Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said: “I would encourage parents and guardians where it is possible to leave the car at home and get active on the school run, enabling our children to actively and safely travel to school.
“Incorporating physical activity into the school run can improve the health, confidence and concentration of our children, as well as teaching them the rules of the road and how to do so safely.
“More walking, wheeling, scooting and cycling not only benefits our own individual health, but also contributes to reducing traffic congestion and air pollution, improving the quality of life for everyone in Northern Ireland.
“Along with the Public Health Agency, my Department co-funds the Active School Travel Programme which has been delivered for the past nine years. “The aim of the programme is to provide children with the necessary skills and knowledge to reduce dependency on private transport and be more active when travelling to and from school.
"Greener, cleaner, healthier and happier people and places must be our aim. I wish everyone taking part in the competition every success on their travels.”
Education Minister Michelle McIlveen said: “The Sustrans Big Walk and Wheel scheme is a positive opportunity to encourage and inspire pupils and young people to get active on the school run and see their local area from a new perspective, whilst learning about the benefits of active travel.
“My Department works in partnership with colleagues from Infrastructure, Health and Sustrans, through the Active School Travel Steering Group and the Walking and Cycling Advisory Group, to help promote, encourage and enable journeys to and from school in a safe and sustainable manner.”