Do you want your pupils to arrive in school fresh, fired-up and fit as fleas? Then get them on their bikes. Harvey McGavin visits a cycling-mad high school and detects signs of a nationwide passion for pedals
When your dad is deputy head of your school it makes sense to travel as a family. Four to a car might even be a justifiable addition to the school run. But Brian Hawkins's three daughters alight several miles short of the school gates, where they call at a friend's house, pick up their bikes and cycle in together.
Felicity, Melissa and Anya Hawkins are not alone. On a normal day more than 700 of the 1,500 pupils at Kesgrave high school get there by bike. Mr Hawkins used to cycle in himself, until the family moved to a house 12 miles away from school. He can understand why his daughters prefer to pedal in. "One of the biggest factors is the social side of it; they cycle together, stop at friends' houses."
Kesgrave, an 11-18 comprehensive on the outskirts of Ipswich, has the highest proportion of cycling pupils in Britain, and the school has become something of a paragon for campaigners. The school enjoys several natural advantages which could account for cycling's popularity. Crucially, the Suffolk landscape is flat, and the still expanding housing estate nearby, where many of Kesgrave's pupils live, is well served with cycle ways (the farming families who sold the land for development were also school governors and stipulated this under the terms of the sale). The school, which opened in 1931, has a tradition of cycling. The original logbook records how in its early years senior children cycled "two or three miles to school", how the boys built a cycle shed for the girls, and that in 1945 the headteacher had to warn children "about the dangers on the road, in particular to cycle near the kerb and in single file".
The school's semi-rural catchment area is relatively compact. "The great virtue of Suffolk is that we are comprehensive and most kids go to their local school," says headteacher George Watson. Kesgrave's innovative three-period day has been a "significant contributory factor", too. "If kids only have to bring in one lot of PE kit and one lot of books, it makes cycling a lot less cumbersome," he says.
But it wasn't always so popular. When Brian Hawkins arrived 15 years ago, the school was much smaller and only 70 of the 700 pupils cycled in. Then the first local cycle paths were built, more and more pupils took to them, and soon the school was inundated.
"We had 200 bikes lying on the grass and we had to make a decision: do we encourage it, which was an expensive thing to do, or do we discourage it? It almost didn't work for us; parents would say, 'look at all those bikes lying around the place'. One of my first tasks was to get them round the back."
Grants totalling around pound;25,000 from the transport campaigners Sustrans, a local charity and the Department for Education and Skills have provided parking spaces for up to 800 bikes and lockers for every child.
Schools keen to encourage cycling need to do two things before all else, says Mr Hawkins: "Provide secure provision away from the front of the school, and have golden rules about behaviour with bikes."
The main rules at Kesgrave are: no cycling on school premises; everyone is responsible for the security of their own bike; and you can enter or exit school only by the subway under the A1214 outside, creating a procession of pushbikes that can take 20 minutes to pass at home time.
During the day, bikes cover whole swathes of tarmac around the school site.
The car park, by contrast, is tiny. For a school of its size, Kesgrave produces minimal traffic congestion, a fact that has aided its expansion in recent years. Earlier this term, the school's annual travel survey found that 755 cycle, 330 walk, 220 come by bus and just 215 come by car. Cycling is less popular among the staff, reaching a peak of about 15 out of some 120 in the summer months. "The kids are more hardy," says Mr Hawkins. Even the most inclement weather will only put off about 20 per cent of them.
There are few downsides to Kesgrave's cycling culture. In 15 years, there have been only around 10 thefts - the bike sheds are protected by 24-hour CCTV surveillance - and fewer than half a dozen accidents involving cars; Mr Hawkins can remember nothing more serious than a broken arm. "People in the community who use the local roads are cycle-aware because there are so many cyclists. You cannot come into the area without thinking bike. That has been a cultural change."
The benefits, on the other hand, are many. "We have a fit population and do well in sports," says George Watson. "Looking around, you don't see many obese kids." The school team recently came third in the national swimming championships and boasts county badminton and netball players.
That can't all be attributed to cycling, "but children who exercise regularly are more inclined to exercise - it's a virtuous circle", says Brian Hawkins. And it has a positive effect on schoolwork. "I don't believe a kid who gets out of bed, eats breakfast and then sits in a car will get to school feeling as fresh, healthy and ready to work as a kid who cycles to school," he adds.
There are some unexpected bonuses: no need to hire a coach for local outings (non cyclists can take the mini bus while everyone else goes by bike); transport home from after-school clubs is much less of an issue; and pupils are encouraged to make their own way to dentist and doctor appointments during the day. "Bike riding breeds independence," says George Watson.
A combination of geography and a can-do philosophy have made Kesgrave a trailblazer for cycle-friendly schools, and many others are following in its tracks. Bike It, a scheme launched by Sustrans 18 months ago, has recorded an fourfold increase in the number of children cycling to 40 schools in its four pilot areas (Derby, York, Manchester and Bristol).
"Everyone said you cannot get children cycling to school because it's not safe," says Vicki Hill, Bike It officer for 10 schools in the York and Doncaster region. "It's about saying, 'kids, you can cycle to school if you like' and for the school to embrace it.
"Thirty years ago the car became absolute king and we all stepped back and let it. All the bike sheds became car parking spaces." The charity aims to reclaim the stereotypical haunts of smokers and smoochers for their original purpose. School champions have been appointed to promote the two-wheeled cause, cycling clubs and bike sheds have sprung up and fun events including mass bike rides have made cycling more visible.
"It gives out the message that 'we cycle at this school'," says Vicki Hill.
"A lot of people say walking is just as good. But cycling is the only truly sustainable way for them to get to school, because if they are still walking when they get to 17 they will want to get a car. If we show them they can go quite long distances on a bike and enjoy it, they are much more likely to ride a bike when they are older."
Training is fundamental to getting bums on bike seats. The national cycling proficiency test had fallen out of use by the 1990s, when it was left to local authorities to administer. It is being revived by Cycling England, the umbrella body created in March, as a three-level national standard for cycle training. Cycling England has also set up six "cycle demonstration towns" - Aylesbury, Brighton, Darlington, Derby, Exeter and Lancaster - under a three-year, Pounds 17 million scheme to get more people cycling, more safely.
The third level of the proficiency test, aimed at Year 7 and Year 8 pupils, takes them on the route they use to school, making it relevant to current traffic conditions. The new training is being trialled in the four Bike It pilot areas and will be rolled out nationally soon. The results in York are encouraging: 40 per cent of those who have taken level 3 end up cycling to school regularly. And as cycling to school in York has risen from 5 per cent to 6.1 per cent in the last five years, accidents involving cyclists have actually fallen.
"That scotches the belief some people have that if you increase cycling you are going to have more accidents," says Paul Osborne, director of Sustrans's Safe Routes to School programme. "What they have found is that the more children that cycle, the safer it becomes. Road users become more aware of cyclists. At schools that work intensively on travel plans or initiatives such as Bike It, you can see a phenomenon where a 'critical mass' is reached, at around 15 per cent to 20 per cent of pupils cycling, making for an atmosphere in which cycling becomes highly visible, socially accepted and thus safer."
Philip Darnton, former chief executive of Raleigh who now chairs Cycling England, says Bike It aims to remove parental concerns about children cycling. "If they say 'ah, but there are no bike sheds', we will provide sheds; if they say, 'there is no training', we will provide training; if they say, 'isn't it too dangerous?' we can say, 'we have got somebody who can show you the best way from your house to school without going on the main roads'. We want to see a complete cultural and attitudinal shift."
There is already a great untapped demand from children to be able to cycle to school; less than 2 per cent of pupils currently do, but a Sustrans survey this year showed that around 45 per cent would like to. Bike It, which Cycling England said this week would expand to all six of the new cycle demonstration towns, could be the solution to that uneven equation.