The surprising impact of cycling

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
Pedal power: Norham High School’s GEAReD Up project saw pupils and school staff take on a number of exciting cycling excursions and activities (images: supplied)

Gear-up pupils and saddle-up the staffroom! Sean Harris looks at the wide-ranging impact of one school’s GEAReD Up project, which introduced cycling to year 7 students – including those on the Pupil Premium

“Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man to cycle and he will realise that fishing is boring and stupid.” Desmond Tutu

Whether your experience of cycling is Lycra-clad commuting to work or simply watching the Tour de France while marking exercise books, the links between cycling and the personal development and wellbeing of children are well documented.

According to Cycling UK, boys aged 10 to 16 who cycle regularly to school are 30 per cent more likely to meet recommended fitness levels, while girls who cycle are seven times more likely to do so. A study by the YMCA also found that exercise of this nature simply makes children and adults happier – with people leading a physically active lifestyle having a wellbeing score that is 32 per cent higher than those with inactive lifestyles.

For the commuting teacher managing to load exercise books onto their hybrid bicycle, there are similar added benefits. Cycling UK says that cycling to work is linked with a 45 per cent lower risk of developing cancer and a 46 per cent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, compared to commuting by car or public transport.

For one charity on Tyneside, cycling is the spoke on which schools can be delivering a diet of personal development and whole-school wellbeing. Bike4Health was developed to enable communities, business and children to incorporate cycling into their lives.

Its founder, Dave Buchan, explained: “Our passion is to help enable schools, teachers and pupils to use cycling in their everyday lives. We want to see more pupils on bikes and will actively work with school leaders to embed cycling into the culture, mission and ambitions of a school.”

I was fortunate enough to co-launch one such project with the Bike4Health team and Cycling UK last year which has enabled many pupils to get into cycling in a way that has raised both gears and aspirations.

GEAReD Up was a project designed by pupils and staff at Norham High school in north Tyneside alongside staff from Bike4Health and Cycling UK. Its aim was to develop character through cycling; particularly among pupils eligible for the Pupil Premium. Each aspect or “spoke” of the programme was designed to give insight into character development through cycling.

Pupils completed activities such as a day of bike maintenance skills, teaching them how to make adjustments to their bike to keep it both roadworthy and well maintained for long-distance rides. Pupils also learned basic First Aid with free workshops from the Red Cross, thus giving them confidence in looking after themselves and potentially other road/track users.

In core subjects, pupils carried out key learning activities linked to cycling as part of focus weeks so that practical learning about cycling could be applied to their academic studies:

  • In English, pupils used photographs of cyclists and cycle excursions to stimulate creative writing and thinking.
  • In science, pupils worked collaboratively to consider how much energy had been burned on their rides.
  • In maths, pupils examined how statistics and data are used to enhance the performance of riders in the Tour de France, with some pupils also reflecting on how data and statistics were used to investigate Tour riders for the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The school was committed to ensuring that every pupil in year 7 could confidently ride a bike as part of their transition to secondary school. Working with the local authority, the school ensured that all pupils completed either Stage 2 or Stage 3 of the Bikeability programme (the Department for Transport-backed cycle training programme) – building on the existing work that some primary schools had already done.

James was one pupil who could not ride at all. He was so proud of himself and was delighted when he was given a bike by a neighbour who had shown an interest in his learning about cycling. Another pupil, despite being knocked from his bike after school one evening by a passing car, came back into school the same evening to explain that he still loved cycling and that the GEAReD Up programme had given him the confidence to carry on.

Bike4Health and Cycling UK have enabled this school to be champions of cycling in a way that is meaningful for pupils. As a result, the school launched a sponsored virtual bike ride to Rome, with each member of year 7 accumulating a set amount of miles that span the distance from north Tyneside to the Vatican.

Prior to starting the GEAReD Up project as a whole, the school discovered that almost 40 per cent of the year group did not have a bike. This changed because of the project and through a partnership with Northumbria Police and the council, who were happy to support us with the loan of bikes that had been acquired by the police. We benefited from several sets of burgled bikes that could not be homed to their original owners. Similarly, your local council or police force may well have a set of “previously loved” bikes that need a good home.

By the end of the academic year, almost 85 per cent of pupils stated that they felt more positive about school as a result of the GEAReD Up project. Pupils were geared up for further learning.

In a climate of budget cuts, it would be easy to ignore cycling as an opportunity for your school. However, with the help of Bike4Health and Cycling UK much of the aforementioned work was able to be carried out with limited funding, and in some cases no cost at all.

Here are six spokes to help give your pupils and colleagues the opportunity to bike on a budget and cycle with collaboration:

Discover Bike4Health

Bike4Health regularly uses the social media hashtag #MoreKidsOnBikes and is keen to support and advocate projects in schools that get children out on bikes. Give them a follow on Twitter and discover the website for further details. Although a Tyneside-based charity, Dave’s team is keen to work with schools across the country and is currently exploring links for schools to make with cultures that are passionate about cycling, such as those in Italy and the Netherlands.

Gear up your community

Cycling UK offered a significant amount of support to pupils and assisted them in setting up their own community cycling hub. You can find out more about how to set up a cycling group with Cycling UK on their website, which in turn will give pupils the opportunity to think about how cycling can benefit their wider community. You can access potential avenues of funding to support the development of cycling in your school and local community. Similarly, pupils might be interested in getting involved in campaigning for greater cycling routes and rights via the Cycling UK network.

Gear up confidence

Use your local authority or local cycling group to offer free Bikeability sessions to your pupils. Revisit this when they get to secondary school too. We were staggered by the number of pupils that had missed sessions in their primary school or who had simply lost confidence in their ability to cycle. The Bikeability programme offers pupils the chance to learn essential skills, such as adopting pedal ready stance and how to signal on busy roads. Plus it is free and gives the opportunity for children’s achievements to be celebrated with awards in assembly.


Get parents on board

Even if some parents are reluctant to go all out with Lycra (and no doubt their teenage children will be less than keen on this too!), giving a practical gift of cycling to their child might be the confidence boost needed for them to take their child on a bike ride. We invited parents to accompany us on bike rides and regularly tweeted pictures of their children cycling. We were humbled by the number of children that went home to ask parents for a new bike for Christmas rather than the latest gadget. We held coffee mornings to showcase what their children were learning via cycling while also offering parents basic bike maintenance lessons for free.

Saddle-up the staffroom

Looking for a team-building activity to support your next CPD session with staff? Keen to give colleagues the opportunity to consider mental wellbeing in a more meaningful way? Why not offer them the opportunity to bring or borrow a bike? And give staff the chance to cycle with colleagues one afternoon in place of CPD. Conversations about teaching and learning will undoubted continue across handlebars, but you are also giving colleagues the opportunity to reignite a passion for cycling that may have been misplaced over the years or substituted for the busy teacher lifestyle that we know can take over in schools.

Engaging with business

Reach out to local business via your pupils to see what support they can offer. We led a cycle ride with Bike4Health as part of a careers day in which pupils visited local business leaders on bikes to interview them about careers and what their jobs entailed. It gave pupils a confidence to host discussions from their handlebars while also learning about job opportunities within cycling distance to where they live.

  • Sean Harris is area director (North East) for Ambition School Leadership. Sean is a former deputy headteacher, a writer and tweeter (@SeanHarris_asl). Sean regularly enjoys wearing Lycra and cycling across the North East.

Further information

• Bike4Health: http://bike4health.org (or email Dave Buchan via david@bike4health.org).
• Cycling UK: www.cyclinguk.org
• Bikeability: https://bikeability.org.uk


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