Power to the pedal

23rd March 2007 at 00:00
Bikeability could be coming to a school near you. Nick Morrison reports on the new training scheme that ensures children know how to stay safe, and happy, on the open road

It's the first outing for Olivia's bright pink cycling helmet - bought by her dad the previous week to go with her purple Chopper bike. It's also a rare outing for her bike on the road. "I ride up and down, but normally I ride on the path," says Olivia, 10. "I'm allowed to ride on the road, it's just that I'm scared. I want to learn more before I go out. I don't really use my brakes a lot."

Olivia is one of four children taking to their bikes in the streets around Corin-thian Community Primary, their school in Liverpool, under the supervision of Martin Bates. Martin and two other instructors from Cycling Solutions, based in Merseyside, are working with the children at Corinthian. He is at the forefront of the introduction of Bikeability, a new national standard of cycle training which is billed as a 21st-century update of the cycling proficiency test.

Bikeability gets its national launch on Monday, after being piloted by about 5,000 children over the past year. A key difference with cycling proficiency, says Phillip Darnton, chairman of Cycling England, which developed the scheme, is that it concentrates on equipping children to cycle safely on the road.

"Cycling proficiency taught you in a safe environment, so you learned how to balance, look over your shoulder without wobbling, how to use brakes and gears, and you did much of that in the playground," he says. "Where Bikeability comes in is how to do this on a road."

Bikeability is a course of five hour-and-a-half sessions. The first session takes place in the playground and teaches children how to make sure their bikes are roadworthy - checking brakes, tyres and wheels - and basic manoeuvres.

Today's second session is taking Olivia and her classmates on to the roads for the first time. After handing out reflective jackets and recapping the previous week's lessons, including pumping up a couple of flat tyres and adjusting seats, Martin takes his four charges on to a quiet street. There, he gets them to cycle on the left hand side and carry out safe U-turns, stopping for the occasional car.

"We don't use words like 'dangerous'," says Neil Kay, the director of Cycling Solutions, which has trained more than 4,500 children in Merseyside. "It is about getting an understanding of the skills, so we ask them to look behind them and then think about whether it is safe to go."

Bikeability has three levels: one, covering whether the bike is safe to ride and doing simple manoeuvres in the playground; two, taking in cycling on side roads; and three, progressing to busy roads and junctions. Level two is aimed at primary children in Years 5 and 6, with level three at secondary pupils.

The Department for Transport is putting pound;5 million into the scheme over each of the next three years, with a target by the third year of putting an additional 100,000 children a year through cycle training. The long-term aim is that about half of all Year 6 children will take a Bikeability course.

Research carried out in areas that have piloted the scheme, which include Exeter, Colchester and Kingston-upon-Thames, as well as North-west England, shows that seven out of 10 teachers and six out of 10 parents have more confidence in children cycling on roads after Bikeability training. Among the children, two-thirds say they are cycling more after taking part.

Making training widespread will also bring health benefits, says Phillip.

"It's more than just teaching children to ride a bike; it's about introducing them to cycling as an everyday activity."

Anna Brooksbank, deputy head at Corinthian, isn't expecting more of her pupils to start cycling to school - most of them live fairly close and there aren't enough cycle racks anyway - but she didn't hesitate in accepting the offer of training.

"We know children are cycling because we see them around the school, and anything that increases their safety awareness will make a difference," she says.

Back outside the school, Luke, 10, is smoothly executing his U-turns. "I cycle in the street with my mates, but I want to learn to ride my bike better," he says. For Olivia, the course could open up a new world. "Once we stop doing the course I may be better on the roads," she says www.bikeability.org.uk

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