Freewheeling scheme proves an instant hit

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
Pupils rush to grab a free mountain bike in charity health initiative

The sleek, black mountain bike young Stephen has been given at Barrhead High is a sound piece of kit. "It could take you up Mount Everest," he says.

"It would be easier coming down," says campus cop Mark Armstrong, on whose shoulders rests the responsibility of keeping the school's new cycles on the road.

Funded by the Scottish Government via transport charity Sustrans - to which East Renfrewshire successfully applied - the 30 Ridgeback bikes, worth pound;300 each, were delivered to the school at the start of this session.

"The deal is that the kids get a bike if they use it to cycle to and from school," says PC Armstrong - aka Mark - who shares a school office with a social worker. "We don't expect them to use the bikes in terrible weather. And we don't expect kids who have music lessons to come on a bike, carrying a big guitar. But we are monitoring how well the bikes are used. A lot more kids were interested than we had bikes for."

Initial selection of first to third-year pupils to get bikes, which keepers are urged to use for pleasure out of school, was made on the basis of who would gain most from them, says head Morag Towndrow.

"They were youngsters who would benefit in terms of health, confidence, optimism, self-discipline, and possibly timekeeping, from having the boost of a bike."

Barrhead High recently invited Scotland's chief medical officer to talk to staff. He got a "fantastic response" to his presentation on how pessimism and lack of control over the future can damage a young person's physical and mental health, says Ms Towndrow.

"I believe we are morally obliged to use every possible means of increasing focus on health," she says.

Almost half the pupils chosen were unable or unwilling to take up the offer of a brand-new bike, says Mark. "Their parents maybe didn't want them to have one or to cycle to school, or they lived in a flat and had nowhere to store it, or they just didn't fancy it themselves," he says.

"So we widened it out, using first-come, first-served. Once word got around what the bikes were like, we got loads of kids wanting to get involved. We could easily have given out 100 bikes."

West of Scotland weather is the worst part of cycling to and from school, says Heather, an S2 pupil. "When the wind and rain are in your face, you pedal as hard as you can and don't seem to get anywhere," she says.

Apart from the bikes, pupils were given road safety training, helmets and reflective jackets and ankle wraps. Formal evaluation of the project will be carried out after a year, but signs are already good.

"There are health benefits to the kids, environmental benefits to the community, improved social skills through working together as a group," says Mark. "We might also provide courses on maintenance and repair. We'll be organising activities, like a trip to the mountain biking centre in Glen Tress."

The cycling and the new bike sheds, paid for by the project, could bring a big cultural change at the school. "Kids with friends in the scheme have started cycling in on their own bikes," Mark says. "I've been here a year now and before this project I never saw pupils cycling to school. Not a single one."

DEALS ON WHEELS

Sustrans - "the UK's leading sustainable transport charity": www.sustrans.org.uk

Safe routes to schools: www.sustrans.org.ukdefault.aspsID=1094226578046

Scotland news including the government-backed project Tackling the School Run, the source of Barrhead High's funding: www.sustrans.org.ukdefault.aspsID=1093447288100.

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