Emma Burstall visits a south London school where skipping is more than a playground pursuit.
Luke Ayling's feet seem to have a life of their own as he jigs around the playground doing complex skipping rope routines. Heel-toe, heel-toe, jump and turn, double bounce. He looks as if he is in training for Riverdance. And he is only five.
Luke is a pupil at Bond County First School, Mitcham, in the London Borough of Merton, where head teacher Harry Galley is the founder and chief coach of the "Bond Bouncers" skipping team.
Mr Galley says Luke is living proof that skipping is not just for girls - and that you are never too young to start.
"Most people think children under seven aren't old enough to master the moves, but it's not true," he says. "Luke's got amazing co-ordination and can do a range of quite difficult steps."
He is not the only one. The whole school went skipping mad four years ago, and the Bond Bouncers - aged four to 10 - have won several British and European skipping records. They also came second in the 1996 European Skipping Championship.
They have appeared on television and presented demonstrations at more than 40 schools throughout England, as well as in Sweden, France, Luxembourg and Belgium. Mr Galley hopes eventually to convert thousands of pupils across Britain.
"We're helping to set up a British Skipping Rope organisation to develop and oversee the sport and give it credibility," he says with missionary zeal. "It's a fantastic form of aerobic activity and fits in beautifully with the PE curriculum, requiring tremendous concentration, coordination of body parts and the putting together of sequences of movement. What's more, you don't need expensive equipment - a skipping rope costs just Pounds 3 - and it's much more interesting for young children than jogging or other forms of keep-fit. "
Mr Galley, who has been at the 400-pupil school for 11 years, became interested in skipping in February 1993 when he attended a workshop presented by the British Heart Foundation. Later that year, hundreds of children from the school took part in the BHF's Jump Rope for Heart sponsorship skip and raised Pounds 500 for the foundation's work in reducing heart disease.
The children's enthusiasm soon led to the formation of a display team and pupils started visiting local schools to encourage an interest in regular exer-cise through skipping rope activities.
Bond County pupils who do not wish to join one of the two after-school clubs or take part in displays are encouraged to skip at playtimes purely for pleasure. A big box of brightly-coloured ropes is always on hand. One of the great benefits of the project, says Mr Galley, is that fitness levels at the school have soared.
"We really notice how fit the children are when we visit other schools. Our kids can do a hundred skips without any trouble, while the others are gasping for breath. Because they are so healthy they rarely take time off sick.
"Heart disease is a big killer and it's widely accepted that regular exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Skipping is something children can do at home, at no cost, in the safety of their garden."
Skipping has benefited pupils in other ways too, by helping to eliminate bullying. "We used to have a few playground problems, nothing huge but it was something we wanted to tackle," Mr Galley explains. "It occurred to us that children were bored. Once we gave them something exciting to do, the problems disappeared.
"We were terribly pleased when, in September 1994, Ofsted gave us a very favourable report and said they were particularly impressed by pupils' behaviour and collaboration. I've no doubt that skipping played a part. "
Competitive skipping has also provided disadvantaged children - 50 per cent of pupils at the school are eligible for free schools meals - with broadening travel opportunities.
Most of the Bond Bouncers' trips cost parents nothing. Expenses are met by selling ropes - provided by one of the country's leading skipping rope manufacturers - to schools for a small profit in exchange for free demonstrations. The team is made up of 50 children, around half of whom are ex-pupils. The majority are girls but, says Mr Galley, the idea that skipping is a female pursuit is gradually disappearing. Coaching starts in the nursery and slowly a new generation of demon boy skippers is emerging.
Charlie Guard, seven, is one of them. "I like it because it makes you fit and you learn different tricks," he says. "If anyone says it's sissy I answer, 'Go and tell Mike Tyson. He skips'. Skipping's a skills game."
According to Argos, the superstore chain, skipping ropes always sell well. "They're perenially popular but not particularly a fashion item," a spokeswoman said.
If Mr Galley has his way, this will soon change. "We've been to over 40 schools and in each of them we've started a craze," he says. "From the number of ropes we sell, I'd say we make about 2,000 converts a year."