An out-of-school mountain bike course in the Highlands is steering pupils towards better behaviour, finds Mark Chillingworth
Imagine the equivalent of riding down the stairs of a medieval castle - that's the Fir Hill route, which drops mountain bike riders over deep, amazingly steep stone steps around a tight right-hand bend.
Just like skiing, routes are classified blue, red and black according to difficulty. And this route, on the purpose-built Learnie Red Rock trails on the Black Isle peninsula in Scotland, is rated black.
Riders with more than 10 years' experience shy away from this level of trail. Yet Highland pupils pick their way through these treacherous routes like pedal-powered mountain goats. They are there because of an innovative project to tackle a decline in behaviour in schools. To give pupils focus and exercise, Invergordon and Alness academies, along with the local council, have handed some a bike and pointed them towards the Highlands.
School discipline has been affected by the boom and bust of the Highlands economy. Scotland's oil rig building boom of the 1960s and 1970s reversed the Highland Clearances of the 19th century, as communities swelled to take up lucrative jobs and remote villages and towns tripled in size. Today the boom is over and teenagers see few job opportunities.
Poor facilities and scarce transport links from a lack of planning in the last boom mean communities often feel dejected.
Mark Sharples, of Healthwise in Scotland, which promotes active living to all age groups, is concerned about the position pupils are in. "Parents are not engaged with them, they might not have both parents at home," he says.
"There are a lot of underlying issues about discipline."
Robert Dinneen, a youth development officer in Invergordon, has seen alcohol abuse rise among youths in the area, especially girls. One pupil from the Invergordon Academy explains: "There is nothing to do here. The youth club is only open on a Monday night, mostly we are just hanging around town."
To connect with the Highland youth, Robert created an out-of-school mountain bike course that gives the young people - mostly boys - the excitement they crave and teaches them specialised skills that off-road riding requires. Robert began teaching bike maintenance using unclaimed lost and stolen bikes supplied by the police. Mountain biking was a natural progression. Healthwise became involved as a funding body so that Robert could put the pupils on proper mountain bikes, which enables them to tackle the challenging trails. "It's a buzz," Mark says of the appeal of the sport.
Mountain biking engages them not only because of its current popularity, but also attracts boys who struggle with, or have no interest in, traditional team games such as football. Pupils are referred to Robert by the area's schools, but, through word of mouth, some are coming of their own volition. The course is now two years old and has helped about 25 teenagers get out onto trails, such as those at Learnie Red Rock.
It has more than 20km of routes, designed and built by a local expert, which challenge the fitness and abilities of any rider. On both sides of the trails the riders experience breath-taking views of the Firth and snow capped Highland mountains.
Schools are not compelled to work with youth development officers, but have embraced the project and support Robert by lending a minibus. Mountain biking provides a rare opportunity to talk to the pupils about the problems they have at school or home.
"They put barriers up at school. With us they are not sure if we are part of the school or not," Robert says. "On a ride, they have achieved something; after it they feel good enough about themselves to open up."
Although the relationship between the schools and youth development officers is voluntary, the two share information for the pupils' benefit.
"If a pupil turns up with no food or the wrong clothes and we know from the school they are having problems at home, we can cut them some slack,"
Robert says. According to Ken MacIver, headteacher of Alness Academy, the programme has been a success. "The youths that we were concerned about and who worked with the youth development workers certainly improved their motivation," he says. "It has had a major impact."
David Frazer, a 15-year-old pupil at Invergordon Academy, is one of Robert's disciples. He joined the bike group two years ago and is now one of the school and the group's biker stars.
He had been suspended from school twice. Now he is able to talk to the school's head and negotiate timetable changes to fit in with his mountain bike commitments. The weekend and Tuesday night sessions, when Robert hosts the course, are among the highlights of his week.
David has made more friends through mountain biking, and has persuaded school friends to join him. He also took his "Camelback" - a rucksack hydration pack that can be drunk while keeping hold of the handlebars - into school to explain the benefits to the other pupils. "He's no longer the school clown," Robert says, proudly.