Why fixing bicycles could help repair pupils' enthusiasm

6th February 2015 at 00:00
Disaffected students respond to Falkirk school's cycle academy

A Falkirk secondary is helping disaffected pupils gear up for success after launching Scotland's first school "cycle academy".

Twenty students at Graeme High spend more than four timetabled hours a week on the bicycle maintenance scheme, which was created as part of the school's efforts to shift its focus from traditional academic subjects to practical skills.

"In a good year, 30 per cent of [our] kids go to university," said depute headteacher Stephen Beath. "Yet our curriculum five or six years ago was almost exclusively set up for the university group."

Other students "looked at the curriculum in terms of what they couldn't do, rather than what they could - they saw nothing in school for them," he added.

But since the school transformed a storeroom into a workshop to fix the bicycles of students and staff, and started offering a level 2 City amp; Guilds qualification in cycle mechanics, students' attitudes have been transformed. "In terms of their confidence, it's been incredible," Mr Beath said.

The impact has been particularly dramatic for one pupil. On the rare occasions he used to turn up to classes, he would just stand and stare at the wall, according to his teachers. Today, however, he is one of the programme's most active participants. "He's taken on a lot of the responsibility in the cycle academy, almost a leadership role, showing some of the others how to do things - and we would never have expected that," said design and technology teacher Stuart Hay.

Another student was dubbed the "wheel whisperer" by peers after the cycle academy uncovered his uncanny ability to coax buckled wheels back into service.

The school spent pound;6,000 to get the project up and running but is optimistic it will be cost-neutral within two years. The academy has already doubled in size, from an initial cohort of 10 boys in 2013-14 to 20 students this year - including one girl, 17-year-old Toni McNelis. "I get qualifications and skills that can get me a different type of job," she said. "I could be a bike mechanic rather than a waitress."

The project has also proved fruitful for 14-year-old Adam McArthur. "I didn't like coming to school or going to [classes]," he said. "My attitude has changed because I get to do stuff I like. I like learning new things, replacing tubes and brakes and gears. I feel confident in the bike academy because I know about bikes. I can help other pupils."

The cycle academy has received support from several organisations including Forth Valley College and local charity Recyke-a-bike, which Mr Beath said had provided access to an "elephant's graveyard" of bicycles.

But the cycle academy is about more than practical skills: the school also wants to encourage social responsibility, and Mr Beath said students had been particularly energised after fixing balance bikes for nearby nurseries as Christmas gifts and repairing scrapped bicycles for disadvantaged families.

"I liked going to the nursery and handing the bike over," said student Joshua Ruiz-Jack, who hopes to become an engineer. "I like making people happy and the children were delighted."

The school is currently developing plans to set up bike clinics in primaries around the town. Other proposals include setting up an eBay shop to sell repaired bikes, hiring out cycles to the public and leading tours through the 170 acres of nearby Callendar Park.

Graeme High is one of only two Scottish schools to have received Cycling Scotland's outstanding cycle-friendly school award. The organisation's chief executive Keith Irving said it was a great example to other schools of the impact that cycling could have on creating "confident and responsible individuals".

"The Cycle Academy provides the opportunity for pupils to gain practical skills that will last a lifetime and boost employability," he said.

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