My son's school runs a free bus service to collect children from outlying villages. When I heard about it I signed up for a place immediately and my four-year-old boy started his commute the very first week of school.
I have a car – transport isn't an issue – so why was I so keen to get him on the bus?
Never mind the petrol I save by not driving him myself, putting him on the bus gives me nearly two hours a day more of child-free time than my friends who collect at the school gate. Two hours!
I cheerily wave my lad off at just after eight, and dutifully wait at the bus-stop for him at five past four. Such bliss. And the best thing of all is that this additional adult-time is completely free-of-charge. What's not to love?
My friend Alison was appalled when I told her I'd be sending my boy on the bus on his own. "But he's so little," she wailed. "How can you expect him to remember everything? And what happens if someone's mean to him on the bus? I just couldn't bear it."
I admit that I had just the tiniest pang of conscience the first day, as I lifted him into the bus (he was too small to climb up himself) and threw his book bag, PE kit, rucksack and lunch box after him. I did wonder how he'd carry them all at the other end.
But quite apart from revelling in my child-free time, I honestly believe my son's daily commute is the making of him. He loves the bus and is devastated on the occasional day when I feel I really should at least say hello to his teacher, delivering him to the playground myself.
The bus driver is fabulously hands-on, with a pastoral influence to rival any member of teaching staff, and the bigger kids on the bus willingly help out with seatbelts and baggage. In fact my son has made as many friends on the bus – from ages four to 10 – as he has within his own Reception class, and that's something I really encourage.
There are disadvantages to using the bus. It's true that my contact with the school is minimal and I have to make a real effort to stay in touch. Obviously if there was a problem I'd call the teacher, or vice versa, but you can't beat a casual meeting at the classroom door for those "oh by the way, Mrs Carlisle," moments when you discover your child has a penchant for dropping his pants at playtime.
The school gate is the conduit for all those mum-friendships too, and I do feel I'd like to get to know a few more parents. But I love my chats with the other bus-stop mums, gathered in the rain with our coats thrown over pyjamas, and I have to confess it's quite nice not to have to make small-talk with two-dozen mothers in Hunter wellies, while traversing the all-weather area.
Mum-of-two Fiona has been sending her children on the school bus for three years."We started when Reuben was four and then he looked after his sister Caitlin the following year, when she started school. The bus picks up all the village kids and there's a great atmosphere – I don't see anything wrong with it at all."
But mum-of-one Abby vehemently disagrees. "At the age of four or five children just aren't old enough to travel alone. The driver can't possibly supervise everything that's going on at the back and there's too much potential for bullying. And quite apart from that, I want to hear what sort of day my daughter's had. It's hard enough getting information from her as she leaves the classroom – I'd have no chance if she took the bus home."
I decided to ask my son for an erudite quote about the benefits of taking the bus to school, so I explained I was writing an article on the subject. He thought long and hard and I waited patiently, my pencil poised above my spiral-bound note-pad.
"It's just good," he said, and wandered off to play with his Lego. Well, that'll do for me.
Would you let your four-year-old go on the bus to school?
Did you as a child and at what age?