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:
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parents/guardians if their son/daughter does not adhere to the school bicycle policy and permission to ride will be withdrawn until the issues identified have been satisfactorily addressed.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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.