Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Problematic policies

It's back to school! Well, a week tomorrow anyway. (Early, I know, but that's what you get for going to an independent school.) So the school has emailed out all the documents necessary for the start of term, and one of them - intriguingly - is titled 'Bicycle policy'!
     Let me share a little with you:

There are many positive reasons for encouraging the safe use of a bike to get to and from school. There are, however, crucial safety concerns which must be addressed in order for a pupil to use their bike for their school journey.

     Not a good start.
     There are safety concerns about many forms of transport, especially motor vehicles, which are the typical form of school transport in the UK. In 2004, 1.2 million deaths were attributed to motor vehicles. The fact that safety concerns for other forms of transport are not mentioned in any documents sent out does not bode well.

1. Parents / Guardians must complete a Cycling Permit giving permission for their son/daughter to cycle to school.
2. All pupils must ensure the bicycle is in good working order, well maintained and the correct size. The school strongly recommends that bikes should cost no more than £200 and that parents/guardians  should keep the receipt, model, make details and frame number.
3. The bike must have front and rear lights, flashing or steady and must also be fitted with a red rear reflector and amber pedal reflectors.
4. Parents/Guardians must provide a named cycle helmet and encourage their child to wear bright and or reflective clothing on the journey.
5. Parents/Guardians must provide a sturdy lock to secure the bicycle at school.
6. Note that all bicycles and helmets are brought and stored on school grounds at the owners’ risk. The school is not responsible for bicycles brought on to or left on school premises and is therefore not liable for pupils’ bicycles being stolen or damaged by a third party.
7. Housemasters will notify parents/guardians if their son/daughter does not adhere to the school bicycle policy and permission to ride will be withdrawn until the issues identified have been satisfactorily addressed.


     That is almost half a page of conditions to be met before pupils are even allowed to cycle to school.
It seems that a lot of the conditions are redundant (the bike has to be 'in good working order' and 'well-maintained', but surely if it is not one it is not the other) or unnecessary (all bikes in the UK must have reflectors to be determined legal, and lights are also a legal requirement for riding in the dark). But as for the helmet, surely that is for the family to decide? Helmets have not conclusively been proven to have a specific impact on most cycling-related injuries, and many children simply wear helmets because of their parents' fears.
     Also horrific is the idea that failure to comply with the policy will result in 'the permission to ride being withdrawn'. If cycling is a pupil's way of getting to school, then withdrawing that is surely unfair and of questionable legality. It is akin to forcing parents to pay for their children to use the school bus rather than the public bus network, which is a lot cheaper and more convenient. Cycling is portrayed not as a right or a true transport choice, but as a privilege - one that can be revoked.
     If the school really wants to encourage cycle use as a mode of transport, perhaps it could start by properly treating it as one, instead of essentially patting it on the head and telling it to hush.

  • A safety helmet and reflective/fluorescent clothing must be worn where appropriate.
  • Cycling within the school grounds is not allowed (including the main gateway and entrance).
  • No fixed wheel bicycles will be allowed.
  • While cycling you must behave in a manner which shows you and the school in the best possible light and consider the needs of others when cycling.
  • Your bike must be kept in good working order.
  • Keep your bike secure: bikes must be locked in the allocated bike shed beside Catering.
  • Know the rules of the road e.g. one-way only streets, stopping at zebra crossings and red lights.
  • Do not ride on pavements: dismount and walk.
  • You will not be allowed to ride to and from school if you do not follow this policy.
     These are 'rules and guidelines', but as evidenced by the last bullet point they are just as much conditions as the previous seven.
     The school is ridiculously prescriptive in what is an 'allowed' bike. It must be in good working order and well-maintained, the correct size - presumably exactly so - must be kitted out with lights even if it is not to be ridden in the dark, and cannot be a fixie. What a mystery that there are not such restrictive conditions for the motor vehicles pupils might be driven into school in.
     Again, legal requirements are presented unnecessarily - and in the case of pavement riding, possibly incorrectly, for it is considered acceptable for children to ride on pavements if they do not feel safe. And indeed many of the roads around the school feel dangerous. Although in a predominantly residential neighbourhood there is heavy traffic on several routes which are also the most desirable routes to cycle. The UK already has a problem with forcing cyclists to choose between pavement cycling (slow and inconvenient) and vehicular cycling (strenuous and feels dangerous) - that the school is removing one of the two options is worse. And are pupils not allowed to use shared-use pavements, even when they are the only infrastructure provided to avoid, say, a gyratory or a dual carriageway?
     It is also annoying that cycling in the school is restricted. It is a lot more convenient to cycle through the gate all the way to the bike shed than to dismount and walk 100m or so, especially when you are presumably laden with schoolbags and possibly late for the morning register. The storage restrictions are quite hypocritical, because I know for a fact that at least two teachers store their bikes in their classrooms and a third leaves his by the railings outside the DT building. The bike shed is in one corner of the school site, problematic especially for the boys' house situated almost exactly on the opposite corner, and is normally almost full. (Unfortunately, most evidence suggests that these cyclists are maintenance or catering workers.)
     The policy then goes on to mention marking and registration schemes in great detail, which is odd for a bike that is supposed to be cheap, and finally is this gem:

To become a more proficient cyclist, Bikeability training is available at 3 levels at:
East Sussex County council:

     Oh, no, you couldn't expect the school to provide Bikeability training. You are to contact the council and arrange (and likely pay for) sessions all on your own.
     The worst thing is that I feel somewhat responsible for all of this. At the last school council meeting of last school year, I raised the suggestion that cycling to school be encouraged more, perhaps with the inclusion of Bikeability training for those who currently feel uncertain about cycling. And the school has decided to do so.
     Hopefully, next time they try they could actually put some effort into it.
     This is not encouraging pupils to cycle. What parent would want to go through all that fuss when they could just pay for a yearly bus pass and stick their child on a bus without worrying whether it is well-maintained or if it cost less than £200? And indeed that is what a large number of parents do. All of my friends who live within two miles of the school get the bus, with the exception of two who live literally one block away from the front gates. Which is interesting, because the aforementioned traffic means that cycling is faster. But policies like these make cycling inconvenient, at least compared to other transport modes, and so the parents choose a mode that is convenient and feels more supported by the school.
     This is the result of a half-hearted attempt to encourage cycling without actually providing for it or making it more convenient. As the threat to remove 'permission to ride' shows, cycling is not viewed as a transport mode in its own right but instead as something for kids to do instead of getting the bus or being driven in. And so, much like a school trip, innumerable conditions are attached to absolve the school from any image problems should something go wrong. If a child is hit by a car on their way to school, the school can point their finger and say, 'He wasn't wearing a helmet. We did not say he could ride; he was breaking the rules.' It is yet another form of the victim blaming which has become endemic in the light of collisions between motor vehicles and pedestrians or cyclists.
     The school run could look like this, if only they would actually try to get people to stop using motor vehicles:

Photo credit to Hembrow Cycling Holidays.

     A small post-script of things I couldn't quite work in satisfactorily: I do wonder how the school intends to enforce some of these rules. Are the housemasters meant to go to the bike shed during their lunch break and check that the bikes are well-maintained? And it would certainly be more encouraging if the school would illuminate on those 'many positive reasons' for cycling, especially since they are so concrete about the conditions. 


  1. Great blog! Sorry to hear your school takes such a risk-averse approach. Typical of how we approach parenting/childcare in general of course. I have exactly same issues at school my kids go to -- we spend far more time worrying about 'safety' than about making things possible.

    Maybe you could encourage your school to have a serious reflection on 'risk' in our society, and short-term versus long-term benefits? might make a good topic for assembly :)

  2. This attitude is pretty much the norm everywhere. At work we have the facility to ask our top boss questions which are published with answers on the intranet. Someone once asked if our organisation could run the Cycle to Work scheme (government initiative to assist employees buy cycles), his answer was the scheme was administratively heavy and expensive to run but that by not running one didn't prevent employees from purchasing their own bikes. Perhaps the fact that we work for a public sector organisation and haven't seen a pay rise in 3 years means we can't afford a new bike (thus people considering cycling to work are put off). The budget still allows for car park improvements an maintaining the automatic barriers that keep breaking down.

    1. Have you asked your boss if they are aware of the savings they can make?

      I am just getting a bike for £700, company buys the bike and loans it to me for 12 months, after monthly and the final payment I will pay £700, but as its paid out of my salary before being taxed and NI'd its actually less for me but they still get the full £700.

      The company then makes money from this, they can claim the VAT back, £116.67 and because the payments are taken out of your pre tax salary thus reducing your salary they then have less salary to pay employer NI contributions of 13.8%, thats £96.60 (as long as your salary is more than £153 per week).

      So they are saving about £213.27 on £700, at least 30%, I would think that more than pays for the admin and gives them a return on the loan.

      Looks to me like they just can't be bothered to actually look into it.

    2. They pretty much can't be bothered, that's true. The VAT doesn't apply since I work for a public sector organisation but there are plenty of them (Inc the NHS) that make it work.

  3. I'm afraid that you are not alone here - it is quite a common practice for schools to impose restrictive and unnecessary conditions on cycling to school, conditions which they should perhaps also impose on driving, but don't. They could, for example, withdraw permission for a pupil to be driven to school by a parent who has a motoring conviction, speeding ticket or parking fine. They could insist that the cars used to drive pupils to school are decrepit old bangers (after all, £200 doesn't really buy much bicycle these days, apart from "supermarket specials", does it?) They could demand that all school-run cars be painted in bright colours and not the commonplace black of the modern independent school mum's 4x4.

    It could be worse - a primary school in South Wales demolished its bike sheds to make more space - for a teachers' car-park!

  4. At least the majority of the children get the bus, the utter stupidity of the cavalcade of u-turning cars outside schools where I grew up is something I only recognise now.

    I never considered cycling to school an option growing up. That was because of similar policies. It is an uphill road, your kids deserve it though, keep up the good work!

  5. There is a new build school near me that is only putting in 21 bike spaces.

  6. Great blog. I think schools put in all these ridiculous rules to actively discourage students from cycling. Obviously they can't explicitly say as such, so instead they just make it as difficult as possible. It's not just students either. I know of several teachers who cycle to school that have been shall we say 'actively encouraged' (ie bullied) by their employers to wear a helmet for their journey. Apparently to do otherwise 'sets a bad example to students'. Keep up the good work.

  7. Hi Red Robin

    Congrats on your efforts, keep it up!

    Below are a few links that might be useful (i've also tweeted at @SpokesLothian)