Remember cycling proficiency tests? For cyclists of a certain age, the tests were a rite of passage - a bizarre ritual conducted on school playgrounds by someone from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) and any teacher who happened to have a free period at the time.

The basic idea was that if you could weave in and out of a line of strategically placed traffic cones you'd get a certificate to say you were safe on a bike. It was hardly the ideal preparation for real-life roads on which motorists wage a daily war of attrition against pedal power, but for generations of children the tests were better than nothing.

Happily, cycle training has been comprehensively overhauled in recent times. And while parents might not like the idea of yet another test for kids already facing Sats practically before they make it out of nappies, the new National Standard for Cycle Training is worth having.

Roger Vincent, of RoSPA, says that while no research has been done specifically into whether cycle training reduces accident rates, there is clear evidence that "it improves knowledge, attitudes and observed behaviour".

The National Standard is a three-tier training scheme devised by Cycling England and the Department for Transport. Level one covers the basics - including how to get on and off a bike - in an off-road setting. The next two levels cover more advanced skills and teach cyclists to cope with a range of different traffic conditions.

The courses cost around £15 a session, though many local authorities offer free or subsidised places. A full list of training providers is available at www.ctc.org.uk, or by calling 0870 607 0415.

There's no requirement to take a test at the end of each stage of the course, though instructors will give children feedback on their performance - and advise parents on whether their kids are ready to move on to the next tier.

But children do get a certificate to say they've had the training, as well as a set of high-visibility stickers they can proudly plaster to bikes and bags.

There is no minimum age for training, though children will need to be able to ride a bike. Parents sending kids on the second and third tiers need to be happy about their children riding on roads, albeit supervised.

If you want to give younger kids a headstart, get them used to cycling while they're still little. "Riding with your children, from the earliest possible age, is the best way to introduce them to cycling," says Yannick Read, of CTC, the cycling organisation.

"An infant is old enough for a child seat when she can sit up unsupported - like in the middle of the floor. Usually that's about nine months, but let physical development rather than age be your guide."

RoSPA's advice is that rear-mounted child seats are much safer than those mounted on the handlebars, which can alter the weight balance of your bike so much that it becomes difficult to steer.

Seats with the BS EN 14344 safety mark are designed to carry children who weigh between nine and 22 kilos - roughly nine months to five years of age.

The most common injuries suffered by children riding in bike seats are when feet get caught in the spokes of the wheel. Look for a seat with footrests that will shield your child's feet from wheel. Safe seats will also come with a harness to prevent kids falling out - look for a child-proof quick-release buckle.

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