The ton-up teachers

Virginia Purchon

Twenty years ago, Virginia Purchon was a rare sight as she whirred her way to school by moped. The ex-teacher has upped the CCs since then, and many former colleagues have joined her on the road. One is even out to beat the land speed record...

In the 1970s the quickest and easiest way for me to get to school was by moped. So I bought a secondhand Honda C90. Come rain come snow, I putt-putted the three miles across town, off-loading my daughter at her school and coming home with a pile of exercise books strapped to the bike's carrier.

Another woman teacher - even shorter than me - came from south London on a big 750cc bike until she was too pregnant to ride it. I greatly admired her daring.

When two male colleagues in the science department took to bikes, they persuaded me to say goodbye to the chicken-chaser - a rather unreliable beast - and buy a 200cc Kawasaki. It seemed powerful at the time.

Our chemistry teacher rode in from Hertfordshire on his 400cc, while the head of science came up from the City on a 250cc Kawasaki.

When I changed school to commute three miles in the opposite direction, the bike was still useful. Parked outside the main entrance, it attracted attention and in due course another science teacher bought it a mate.

Like attracts like, and little pockets of bikers develop in some schools. There is said to be a boom in Britain of born-again bikers among professional occupations. There is a motorcycling judge, a bishop, a banker, at least one midwife and some politicians.

Ian Lee, of the British Motorcycling Federation rider training headquarters, says more teachers are taking the tests now, two recent ones being a headteacher and an OFSTED inspector.

A handful of teacher enthusiasts I talked to recently described their motorcycles variously as "addictive", "fun to ride", "easy to park" and "economical". Biking requires concentration, so work worries fall off when your helmet goes on. "Bikes keep my reactions healthy and my thinking young, " was one comment.

Friendliness among bikers, the buzz of beating other traffic and getting to school on time were other plus factors.

Surprisingly, although cold, wet weather and having to "dress up" for motorcycling are the main drawbacks, only one teacher had "basically nowhere" to put sopping wet gear. Lack of carrying capacity could be an advantage ("no luggage, no passengers") or a disadvantage - ("nowhere to put books") - depending on your viewpoint. Three of the most experienced bikers who are regular commuters in all seasons listed lack of bike-awareness in car drivers as an infuriating factor.

Gabriel Uttley is a Yorkshireman, bike racer and head of design and technology at Beauchamps Comprehensive School in Essex - and he hopes soon to become the fastest man on two wheels. Deciding his brains were under-used in industry, he did an access course, then a degree in design and technology and braved the culture shock of a job in the South. He has taught for four years now and clearly loves it. A fascination for motorcycles began young and his enthusiasm overflows into the curriculum, creating a climate of achievement.

The idea to attempt a British land speed motorcycle record - currently standing at 200.9 mph - arose in 1996 from an A-level project. A student, Richard O'Leary, wanted to do something exciting so together they decided he should design the aerodynamics of the bike and make a fairing for the attempt.

A monster 1300cc Suzuki was bought, there being no time to build anything from scratch. Already tested at 174 miles per hour, it be-comes an "absolute animal" when it roars into life. For Uttley this bike is for fun only, not for commuting. And because he lives on a boat, for safety he keeps it in the school caretaker's garage.

With so much preparation needed for the speed attempt, he decided to involve 30 Year 10 pupils as part of their Project Trident personal challenge. The group includes two girls who joined because it was "something different" and "seemed fun". The youngsters get the bike ready for race meetings, help with publicity and provide back-up at trials. With some expert outside help and sponsorship for specialist parts, the Suzuki's engine, brakes and front and rear ends have been modified to achieve the standard of performance and safety needed for the British record attempt a week on Sunday (September 28).

When they go to a race track to test the improvements, Gabriel Uttley takes a team of 10 Beauchamps pupils, their responsibilities parcelled out. Checking tyres, fuel and brakes are among their duties. These 15-year-olds are learning to think ahead, plan long term, be reliable, conscientious and pay meticulous attention to detail. Woe betide anyone who fails in this, for their teacher's life is at stake.

Uttley's own responsibility "to prepare them for the increasingly technological world of the future" is taken seriously too. "They have learned that things go wrong, that the bike's a piece of engineering and it's really crucial to get things right."

The emphasis on safety and dependability in an environment outside school is another important part of their education, he believes. "By going out and doing things like this I am proving that anything is possible if you want it enough. If I put effort in, then so should they."

In a school which is totally supportive of his efforts, the project has become a serious venture, attracting considerable publicity and major sponsorship - for it is very expensive. Ferrodo, the brakes company, is putting up big money and links with the factory are being nurtured.

Dealing with adults - both sponsors and the media - has been another learning process for Beauchamps pupils. Next year they want to try the world record in the US - covering the length of a football pitch in three quarters of a second, a speed of more than 220 miles per hour.

Sitting on a stool in his classroom in front of some of his team, arms outstretched, Gabriel Uttley waxes lyrical about the project. It is not for nothing other teachers describe him as a "nutter".

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