Setting the wheels of work in motion

23rd January 2009 at 00:00
Where do old bicycles go to die? They don't. They get a new lease of life, thanks to an innovative project in the Forth Valley

There are reputedly nine million bicycles in Beijing. The Forth Valley cannot boast quite so many, but it is fast catching up, thanks to a productive project which restores dozens of scrapped bikes a week.

Much of Recyke-a-bike's work is by teenagers who have left school disaffected and with few qualifications. They rescue bicycles - most from council recycling centres or donated by the public - and do such a good job of repairing them that there is a steady stream of customers buying them up at around Pounds 45.

The project, which also provides a maintenance and repair service, started in 2006 and offered a six-week training course based in Fallin, near Stirling, run by Fallin Community Enterprises. It has expanded to other bases, with a 20-week training scheme in Clackmannanshire starting last year and a similar one earmarked for Falkirk this year. There is also training on bicycle repairs for adults and skills for pupils.

The courses for post-school teenagers have become more sophisticated and now include employability skills, first aid and health and safety. Participants receive an unaccredited certificate, but staff are working with the Scottish Qualifications Authority to create a new Scottish Vocational Qualification.

The aim is to take 70 young people through the course each year, and for Recyke-a-bike to sell 2,500 bicycles a year, with five a week from the three training workshops in Fallin, Alloa and Falkirk. In 2008, the project sold 1,200 bikes. Such is its success that retailers of new ones are irked, and Alasdair Tollemache, the project manager, has had to smooth the waters.

He explains that Careers Scotland helps pick school leavers, those who have not done well, view education negatively, have not passed exams and have little enthusiasm. They must, though, show interest in the mechanics of a bicycle. "They think, I'm not going to do well because I didn't do well at school," he says, adding that, far from thinking about future careers, most young people "don't look beyond next week". Workshops are less formal, more a workplace than a training centre.

"We have a relaxed working environment where they are treated like mature people, and that works quite well. But those who start it know that what they put in, they get out."

Mr Tollemache is confident about the future of the project, which has enough money until 2012, thanks to funding from Inspiring Scotland, Stirling, Clackmannanshire, and Falkirk councils, and the Coalfields Regeneration Trust. He believes that as the global economy worsens, there will be an interest in the courses from well-qualified potential trainees hoping to pick up a manual skill.

Stuart Rycroft, an education officer at Clackmannanshire Council, says it was a "no-brainer" for the authority to get involved, as it involves recycling, health and fitness, and opportunities for disillusioned young people: "It ticked all the boxes."

Feedback from youngsters at the Alloa workshop has been pleasing, he says: "All of them have enthused about it. One laddie said: 'It's great, you can get your hands dirty and don't get a row for it.' Seeing these discarded bikes coming in, and for youngsters to turn them into something desirable is rewarding. I was so impressed I parted with some of my hard-earned cash and bought one."

The council got involved through the Scottish Government's More Choices More Chances strategy, designed to reduce the number of young people out of work, education and training. Mr Rycroft says that "turning up for work five days a week" is one of the most important skills participants learn.

"In Clackmannanshire, a lot of places have shut but nothing has opened in their place," he explains. "There are plenty of supermarkets, but not the kind of jobs needed. This is providing opportunities."

He points to the revived rail link between Alloa and Stirling and the bridge over the Forth as signs of a new dawn. He believes projects such as Recyke-a-bike can encourage young people to "broaden their horizons" and propel them into rewarding careers.

Alasdair Tollemache; T: 01786 818059.

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