As Bike to School week approaches, David Gordon looks at what governors can do to make sure their school is ‘bike friendly’

Does your school encourage pupils to get on their bikes?

Cycling to school is one of those rare activities that ‘ticks all the boxes’. It’s enjoyable, it gives children much needed-physical activity and it helps the environment by reducing the number of cars on the school run.

So you would expect it to be a routine part of school life for many children. But, despite the fact that 90% of children in Great Britain own bikes, fewer than 2% actually ride them to school. Nevertheless, more than 30% of children say they would like to ride to school and the government is encouraging schools to try to bridge that gap in the numbers.

With Bike to School Week taking place from April 26 to 30 this year, schools have an ideal opportunity to encourage more of their pupils to cycle to school – and to assess how effective and ‘bike friendly’ their facilities are.

The health benefits of cycling to school are undisputed. Research carried out by YouGov for Cycling England found that children who are ferried to school by car spend an average of two hours and 35 minutes per week in their vehicle, which is equivalent to 8% of school time – more than the 5% of school time which is given over to doing physical education.

As well as improving their health and fitness, allowing children to make their own way to school can also help them to become more confident and independent. According to the Bike for All website, teachers in schools across the UK have also reported that pupils who walk or cycle to school are more alert and concentrate better than those who travel by car.

The biggest single factor making many parents reluctant to allow their children to cycle to school is a concern for their safety. Bike for All tackles these fears in the Bike to School Week section of its website at www.bikeforall.net/content/cycling_to_school.php

The organisation argues that serious accidents involving child cyclists are rare and that the risks of cycling are dwarfed by the health risks of lack of exercise. The background information for the week also stresses the need to ride a bike that is the correct size and properly maintained and the importance of wearing a properly fitted helmet.

Further information to support teachers in encouraging children to cycle to school is provided at www.bikeforall.net/content/teachers.php

Beyond short-term initiatives like Bike to School Week, schools should be considering how they encourage cycling to school at all times through their School Travel Plan. All schools in England were expected to have a plan in operation by this year. The plans, which were introduced under the government’s Travelling to School initiative, must show what measures schools are putting in place to reduce car use and to allow many more pupils to take regular exercise by encouraging and making it possible for them to get to school on foot or by bike or, where that is not possible, on public transport.

Funding for travel advisers to help schools prepare their travel plans is about to end, but the government is continuing to promote cycle use as part of its sustainable schools initiative. It also wants to put walking and cycling at the heart of local transport and public health strategies over the next decade and has made access to cycle training for every child one of the aims of its recently published Active Travel strategy.

Bike for All suggests that schools should develop a formal cycling policy, possibly as part of their School Travel Plan. Items that should feature in that policy include:

  • cycle permit scheme – setting out the rights and responsibilities of cyclists (and their parents), rules on cycling behaviour and guidance on helmet use;
  • cycle storage – offering safe and secure protection for children’s bikes;
  • other storage – providing places where pupils who cycle can leave helmets, lights and outdoor clothing;
  • training – an essential part of any strategy to get more children cycling to school;
  • cycle maintenance – requiring pupils to get their bikes inspected for roadworthiness before bringing them into school, and offering cycle maintenance classes at school;
  • car parking – cutting the number of parking spaces around the school gates can improve safety and encourage cycling;
  • other school policies – sometimes small changes to school policies (eg uniform) or practice can make it easier for pupils to cycle to school.

Promoting safe routes to school is a vital part of increasing cycle use and the UK sustainable transport charity Sustrans operates a separate campaign, Safe Routes to School. It has been running a school travel competition in which key stage 2 and 3 pupils have been asked to tell the government what they think it should do to make it easier to walk and cycle to school.

Teachers have been getting pupils to either write a letter or newspaper editorial on the subject.

The Safe Routes to School campaign also produces a Cycling to School worksheet of information for parents and schools. To download it click here.

The Bikeability cycle training scheme, run by the Cycle Touring Club, also provides resources for teachers and pupils for class activities around cycling. These are available from its website at www.bikeability.org.uk/teachers/ along with information on how to get a Bikeability training scheme up and running at your school.

Another active option is to become a Bike It school. Run by Sustrans, Bike It helps schools to increase cycling and its target schools report five times more children cycling than the national average.

Schools across the UK can contact their nearest Bike It location through the project’s website at www.sustrans.org.uk/what-we-do/bike-it and get teamed up with their local Bike It officer who will advise and lead them on the process of becoming a Bike It school.

The specially trained officers will help schools tackle vital issues such as cycle training, storage, travel plans and parental involvement. They can offer many different kinds of events and activities, including tailored lessons linked to the national curriculum.

Since 2009, schools have also been able to participate in the Bike It School Mark scheme, which documents their success in maintaining the positive effects of Bike It and rewards their achievements at bronze, silver and gold standards.

A booklet, Brilliant Bike It, introducing the scheme to parents and teachers, is available from www.sustrans.org.uk/bikeit

Schools can also sign up on the website to receive a regular school travel e-update.

When Bike It officers start work in a school they pick a ‘cycling champion’ to help them organise things. At one primary school in York, governor Romy Dunn was chosen and soon took to the role with enthusiasm:

‘We had no children cycling to school when we started and around 80 turned up on their bikes at our first event! That’s when I knew we were on to something big,’ she said. ‘We did so much during that year. We had Bike Breakfasts, Mend your Bike days, workshops with cycling paramedics and the police and we built two new bike shelters.

‘Cycling mosaics went up on the school walls and we managed to win the Tour de France (long story)! But when our year was up, we just carried on. Since then, we have won a UK environment award, have been chosen to have advanced cycle training, have held regular green travel weeks and family bike picnics.’

With the weather finally improving and children looking for healthy ways to release their energy, now is a good time for governing bodies to ask whether their school is doing enough to encourage cycling to school.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in April 2010

About the author: David Gordon is an author, writer, editor and qualified lecturer and has also been a parent governor. He has been the editor of School Governor Update since its launch in 2000

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