A biking scheme that aims to stop pupils back-pedalling

2nd July 2010 at 01:00
It's a vicious cycle: you get pupils out of cars for Walk to School Week, then they are back in the 4x4s the following Monday. But a scheme in East Renfrewshire hopes to change habits for good

Twice a year, local papers are full of smiling children abandoning their parents' cars to amble to school on foot. What readers don't see is the same pupils cooped up inside 4x4s just days after national Walk to School Week. Old habits come back with a vengeance.

East Renfrewshire is one of seven local authorities taking a more fundamental approach to families' reliance on cars, with schemes in the town of Barrhead that will get children of all ages on their bikes - in and out of school.

Barrhead High is one of a tiny number of schools in Scotland to have incorporated mountain biking into the PE curriculum. More than 500 S2-S5 pupils began a course in practical cycling using 30 mountain bikes last month, as part of the Scottish Government's Smarter Choices, Smarter Places programme to get people more active and reduce transport pollution.

There has been an enthusiastic response to mountain biking, because it offers "something different from the usual team sports" and appeals to pupils who might not normally excel in PE, says Active Schools co- ordinator Gary McGunnigle.

Mountain-biking lessons can involve practising simple exercises around the school grounds, but might also take pupils to Whitelee wind farm where the school has seen potential for cross-curricular work with geography.

Bicycle maintenance sessions will add another dimension next year, and mountain biking will be incorporated into the curriculum at nearby St Luke's High.

Barrhead's mountain-biking scheme was created through Go Barrhead, a programme run by East Renfrewshire Council and funded by Smarter Choices, Smarter Places that has led to a string of other projects.

Primary pupils have learnt cycling proficiency in new ways. Rather than meandering round painted markings in the playground, they have been getting onto real roads and negotiating real traffic.

Special pedal-free bikes have been introduced to nurseries to help children as young as three learn to balance without distraction and build up cycling confidence.

A trial scheme at St John's Primary has had a lasting impact. P4-7 pupils were offered free swimming or after-school sport at Barrhead Leisure Centre if they cycled regularly to school. A chart was placed on a classroom wall, and a tick made against each child's name every time he or she arrived or left school by bike. There was a 14 per cent increase in journeys by bicycle from September 2008-09.

Kirsteen Torrance, another Active Schools co-ordinator, says Walk to School Week always gets lots of children on their feet - but most are back in their parents' cars a week later for a reason. Whether it's work schedules or fears about safety, persuading pupils to make their own way to school will be a slow, incremental process.

Ms Torrance is evangelical about the "enormous benefits" of getting pupils out of cars: fresh air; better awareness of their surroundings; less petrol belched into the environment and safer roads. It also helps pupils "switch off from being at home" and arrive "ready to learn", whereas a child dropped off by a parent after an argument at home might be in bad form all day.

The St John's Primary trial has worked, she says, not just because there are sound reasons behind it, but because it is very simple. Pupils see their progress on the wall and are spurred on by their competitive instinct and the incentive of rewards.

The programme manager for Go Barrhead, Scott Gibson, says the key to getting more people cycling is not only to target all age groups, but to look beyond schools and nurseries.

The programme's branding is a common sight on banners and posters around the town. A bike festival at Carlibar Park last month let people see stunt cyclists flying through the air and later take part in a family cycle of several miles. Signs along paths have been altered to tell people how long it will take to get to a destination.

But Mr Gibson wants to get away from the idea that short-term initiatives or infrastructure such as cycle paths lead to long-term change on their own.

"You don't just build something and hope people will use it," he says. The key lies in making cycling second nature, in school and beyond.



Smarter Choices, Smarter Places - jointly launched by the Government and Cosla - is a pound;15 million three-year scheme that comes to an end in 2011. An evaluation by Aberdeen University should be completed in 2012, after which the scheme may be extended throughout Scotland. The other six authorities are:

Glasgow - mountain bike loan scheme involving 3,500 pupils in 11 east-end schools, allows pupils without their own equipment to take part in cycling training.

Dundee - bike loan scheme and weekend cycle training for families in schools.

Falkirk - two full-time cycling instructors and improved storage for bikes, intended to create a 15 per cent increase in journeys to primary school by bicycle.

Orkney (Kirkwall) - bike racks in buses, improving pathways, GP referrals to "active travel opportunities", research into car culture on islands.

Dumfries and Galloway (Dumfries) - self-service cycle hire, salary- sacrifice scheme to encourage cycling to work.

East Dunbartonshire (Kirkintilloch and Lenzie) - an "integrated travel plan" is concentrating on the places where most people work.

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