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spires from Carfax

school cycle training needs to be universal

The current cycle training provision in our primary schools is inadequate and inequitable.

Imagine if primary schools ran a course on finance for Year 5 children, provided for free and taught in school time, but only offered to those children who already have an understanding of the basics - who already know what an interest rate is, say - and who already have a bank account of their own. That would, rightly, be condemned as hugely regressive, teaching children who are already privileged and knowledgeable even more, and exacerbating existing inequalities.

But this is exactly how cycle training works, certainly in Oxfordshire and I think across most of the country. Primary schools offer Bikeability training in Year 5, but only to children who can already cycle and who have a roadworthy bicycle. This fails to reach children who have never learned to cycle, as well as those who may be able to cycle but don't have their own bike, or don't have one in adequate condition. Which leaves some children - and thus their families - unable to use what is (at least in Oxford) the fastest, cheapest, healthiest and most reliable way to make many trips.

There are programs that attempt to reach these children, but they are ad hoc and far from universal. Ideally cycling would, like swimming, be part of the National Curriculum and funded by the national government, but local authorities can do this themselves. Derby has committed to all children being able to cycle when they finish primary school.

This could be implemented in different ways, but I think basic cycle training needs to start around Year 1 (like Balanceability). By that age almost all children have the physical strength and coordination necessary for cycling, and it is around that age that they stop fitting into standard child seats on adult bikes. There would then need to be refresher and catch-up training in later years, leading up to Bikeability training for everyone in Year 5. Making all of this universal would require provision in school hours and funding for both the training and for school bike libraries to support children who don't have bikes. For best effectiveness it would be combined with training for parents who can't cycle.

London Boroughs apparently do this already, with funding from Transport for London: balance bikes in reception, learning to ride in Years 1 and 2, Bikeability Level 1 in Years 3/4 and level 2 in Years 5/6.


  1. This is absolutely right – but I think there is an even greater opportunity to start with preschoolers. A 12-inch balance bike is designed for ages 2+, whilst a 14-inch is 3+. Though a child of this age presumably needs more time to learn to ride than a Year 1 student, it takes less effort from parents and requires fewer resources.

    My experience so far has been that spending a year with a balance bike provides an ideally gradual way for a toddler to grow into cycling and road awareness, with minimal infrastructure and maintenance. The first barrier is putting high-quality balance bikes into children's hands: the difference between a rubbish discount model and an Islabikes Rothan is night and day, but the latter costs only £40–70 used. Access to safe pavements not blocked by vehicles is also a problem in some areas, and of course there is the matter of parental time.

    Comment by Andrew Dunning — June 2023
  2. Yes, starting in preschool is even better! But many children don't go to preschool, so if we want to provide universal training it has to start in Reception or Year 1, and can't assume earlier experience.

    Comment by danny — June 2023

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