Today Bikeability training took place at our village primary school. It was a cold, blustery day, but the Class 3 pupils were enthusiastic and the two young trainers spent the day helping the girls and boys weave their bikes among cones in the playground, learning the basics of road safety and risk awareness. They then put what they had learned into practice on a nearby road (quiet village lane, it must be said), a procession of small cyclists in high vis jackets taking it in turns to glance over their shoulder, make a wobbly arm signal and carry out a simple manoeuvre at a junction.
My satisfaction at seeing these budding young cyclists being put through their paces was tempered by the fact that it was itself such an unusual sight. For most of the children (aged 8 and upwards) it was apparently the first time they had ever received any formal instruction on a bike. Inevitably, given the preoccupation with academic tests and National Curriculum targets, cycle training simply doesn’t seem to register, despite the multiple benefits that riding a bike can bring to children and young people – from the sheer physical exercise and demands of coordination to hands-on lessons in sustainable travel and reducing carbon emissions. More than anything else, though, it’s the teaching of a key life skill – the ability to safely and properly ride a bike – that this present generation is in danger of missing out on. And what problems does that store up for us in the future, I wonder?
Bikeability is billed as ‘cycling proficiency for the 21st century’ and the training operates on three levels, each designed to improve cycling skills, ranging from Level 1 for new young riders learning balance, control and basic safety through to Level 3 for secondary school age children, helping them understand how to ride in different and more challenging traffic situations, plan routes, and so on. Bikeability is delivered by registered instructors through local Bikeability schemes and operates nationwide. The DfT’s Bikeability website estimates that more than 1.5 million children and young people will have been trained by March 2015. On the face of it that’s great news, and the kids I saw today will certainly have benefited. But what about the other 8 million school-age children in the UK who won’t have access to that training?
Those of us a little longer in the tooth will remember the National Cycling Proficiency Test. I think I still have my little green and red triangular badge somewhere, and I recall that everyone in the school seemed to take part. It was first set up in the 1950s and eventually superseded by the National Standards for Cycle Training in 2005. Re-launched as Bikeability, this new scheme was initially administered by Cycling England, the independent body set up the same year to promote cycling in England – and axed by the Government just five years later. (Resigned sigh.)
Bikeability is inherently good, sensible, forward-thinking and hugely valuable. But it’s not mandatory for our children or our schools. Not every local authority has even adopted the scheme, with some (like Derbyshire County Council) choosing to run their own voluntary version with its inevitably patchy take-up. It’s symptomatic of a national approach to cycling that still doesn’t properly join up, whether it’s the practical stuff like safer road junctions and reduced speed limits, or long-term national targets and a commitment to minimum annual spending levels on cycling. And all the while we’re missing out on the chance to teach children – every child – how to ride a bike with confidence and safety so that cycling one day becomes the norm.