New test could get youngsters back on bikes

Cycling proficiency tests are set to make a comeback next month, as part of a new initiative to try to get more young people on to their bikes, and riding safely. If it works, the idea is that thousands more children will grow up not only as cyclists, but as responsible cyclists.

Within a few generations, a much greater percentage of all journeys in Britain will be made by bicycle (it is currently less than 2 per cent) and, better still, hoodlums like me, who ride on the pavement and jump red lights, will quickly become a thing of the past!

When I first heard about this new strategy, I have to admit that I was more than a little sceptical. In my experience, reheating old and defunct policies rarely provides the solution to modern problems.

Just as remaking the 1960s soap opera Crossroads turned out not to be the answer to ITV's ratings slump five years ago, it seemed unlikely that resuscitating cycling proficiency tests would strike the right chord with the children of today - especially seeing as the old proficiency programme died partly because it had lost credibility amongst the young.

But the new initiative is, in fact, much better conceived than I had expected. For a start, the nerdy tag of "cycling proficiency" has been replaced with the much more modern brand of "bikeability", and those who successfully sit the course are awarded brightly coloured certificates and badges, rather than the old-fashioned, very sensible-looking brooches.

Perhaps most encouraging of all, Cycling England, the quango that has put together the new programme, took the time to poll the opinions of children around the country while it was creating the scheme, ensuring it was designed with some input from those who will be using it.

Bikeability has already been trialled by more than 3,000 children, and with great success. As of next month, it will be rolled out around the country, with several thousand instructors already trained up and ready to teach the courses. The programme has three levels. The first teaches basic bike handling skills, such as signalling, manoeuvring and gear control. The second gives training on minor roads, and the third instructs you on how to negotiate traffic on more busy roads.

The ultimate aim for Cycling England is not only to ensure more children take to their bikes, but that a significant proportion of secondary school children make their daily journeys to school and back on their bikes. To that end, the organisation has also been working to encourage schools to provide safe bike storage facilities, as well as badgering councils to build cycle routes connecting colleges to the main residential areas.

Although the Government has been notionally supportive (it does, after all, provide Cycling England's funding), it's enthusiasm still only runs so far.

While swimming, for example, is now a permanent fixture on the national curriculum, the Department for Education is unwilling to make a similar commitment to cycling, in spite of the fact that it has so many potential benefits. What better way could there be to tackle the growing problem of child obesity, for example? Equally, if the Government is serious about tackling climate change, then surely encouraging the development of a strong national cycling culture amongst the youngest in society is a no-brainer.

Although Bikeability is a great beginning, it could ultimately become the springboard for a step-change in UK's approach towards cycling - and the answer to a whole host of social, economic and environmental challenges. But until the Government makes this connection, let's hope schools and colleges get behind the initiative.

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