D grade for active transport to school

‘Could do better’: NZ gets D grade for walking, biking and scooting to school in global report.

Professor Melody Smith in a park.
Safety is the biggest obstacle to kids walking and cycling to school, says Professor Melody Smith.

In global rankings for children’s exercise, Aotearoa New Zealand has done well for government support but poorly for active travel to school.

Physical activity report card grades for schoolchildren in 57 countries were released on 24 October at an international conference.

New Zealand scored a D grade for active transport, with only five countries performing more poorly.

“We have been near the bottom of the pile consistently for active transportation over recent years,” says lead researcher, Professor Melody Smith in the University of Auckland’s School of Nursing.

“We have also seen significant declines in the proportion of kids getting to school actively over time. In this most recent report, it is 31 percent.”

The biggest barrier to using active transport is safety, Dr Smith says.

“As a country, we need to rethink how we promote active travel and how we prioritise active travel modes, not just for kids, but for everyone. That requires change across all levels of the transport system from infrastructure to social norms.”

For overall physical activity, New Zealand schoolchildren scored C+, which is ninth-equal on the table. The top results were A- for Slovenia and Finland, based solely on data from devices.

A positive finding this year is an A for government initiatives to support kids’ activities.

Smith says this relates to government policies, but especially to the work of Sport New Zealand Ihi Aotearoa, which has established a national physical activity outcomes framework, strategy and plan, as well as recognising the importance of ongoing evaluation.

In other New Zealand results, the grades were: organised sport participation B-, sedentary behaviour C-, school C+, family and peers D, physical literacy B, and sleep B+. Read New Zealand’s report card.

Drilling further into the data, young people from 15 to 17  years old are less active, scoring an F for sedentary behaviours, then 11 to 14-year-olds, who scored a D +, and 5 to 10-year-olds who scored a B-.

“We need initiatives to support adolescents to maintain their activity and we know that physical activity tracks over time, so more active adolescents are likely to be more active adults,” Dr Smith says.

The researchers also looked at equity and found mixed results – overall physical activity grades were lowest for children and youth living in higher deprivation areas, those living in more urbanised areas, and those of Asian ethnicities. But these patterns weren’t consistent across all of the indicators.

Their recommendations include regular national report cards using improved assessment tools, promotion of all dimensions of physical activity, including active transport, recreation, active play and organised sport, strategies to reduce screen time, and targeted approaches to reduce inequities.

The University of Auckland has collaborated with the University of Otago, AUT, Massey University, Victoria University Wellington and Sport New Zealand Ihi Aotearoa to produce the report card, drawing on national datasets, reports and surveys produced since the last report card in 2018.

The data sources used were from up to March 2020 and the team plan to produce a separate report to gain insight into the impact of Covid-19 on schoolchildren’s activity.

Smith warns against placing too much weight on global comparisons, as countries gather data in different ways, plus some included the period since Covid-19 arrived.

Waka Kotahi hopes investment will improve grade

“This D Grade for Active Transport to School is a reminder of how much work remains to be done, says Kathryn King, manager urban mobility, Waka Kotahi.

“Fifty-five percent of trips to school are made in cars with 578,000 students driving, or being driven, to school each day. Those trips are a major contributor to emissions and one of the reasons a significant focus of the government’s $350M Transport Choices programme focuses on more sustainable, active travel options to school,” King says.

“We’re confident this investment over the next two years will make a difference to how kids get to school and the Active Transport to School grade next time it’s assessed.”

Media contact

FMHS media adviser, kaitohutohu pāpāho, Jodi Yeats
M: 027 202 6372
E: jodi.yeats@auckland.ac.nz