I have real problems with the idea of first-graders walking to school alone, for a few reasons.
A lot of Germany seem to have a 'Dorf Mentalität' on this matter (stand well back and wait for the explosion), meaning that they imagine we're all living in idyllic villages where everyone knows each other. Kids can walk the five minutes to school and there'll be little traffic to run them over and neighbours along the way to keep an eye on them. The problem with that is that it just doesn't work in the major cities. Drivers in Berlin are lunatics, and a number of kids get run over each year, especially by lorry drivers turning right.
The fact is that under these conditions, children are too young to go to school alone reliably. They can manage fine as long as things go to plan, but they lack the maturity to make sensible decisions when the unexpected happens. I have two examples of this:
1. I'm bringing my kids home on the bus and a girl gets talking to us (although we are total strangers). She tells us her name, that she is 7 and in the 2nd grade, and walks along the street with us towards home. Then she realises she needs to be on the other side of the road and tries to cross at a bend in the road with no official road crossing. Luckily I was there to help her cross safely.
2. I come across another little girl crying in the street, it's raining, I ask her what the problem is. Turns out she has come from school by herself to the Hort, and can't remember where the hort is! She's also 7.
So when do kids start acquiring this maturity to cope independently? In most kids I know it was around 8. At that age they have more road sense, they can use a mobile phone for emergencies (my daughter does not have her own, but she takes a cheap prepaid with her when travelling alone), and they can react better if the unexpected happens. A friend is a German paediatrician, and she let her daughter walk home alone at nearly 8. The situation is all the more acute now in Berlin, where some children start school at 5. Anyone who does not accompany their 5 year old to school in a big city is acting irresponsibly. Just as anyone who insists on taking a 10 or 11 year old to school by car every morning might have issues with being overprotective (unless there is a specific bullying issue as mentioned above). And yes, the parents who park illegally in front of the school are acting just as irresponsibly.
My main concern with young children is traffic, and I think people are right not to overplay fears about strangers preying on little kids, as that is statistically unlikely. However, the danger is potentially there, and we have an illustration of that currently in Berlin.http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/;art270,2476204
Do you still think that taking your kid to school is an 'Unsitte' when there's a rapist around?
As I said, we live in a big, dangerous city, and people need to take precautions. I've never understood the German overconcern for property (the metal blinds and bars on windows), compared with the apparent carelessness about their own family and the justifications they think up for being that way.
Glad I got that out of my system.