How to encourage cycling at schools with anti-cycling policies

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Two school children with their bikes

How to encourage cycling at schools with anti-cycling policies

Is your child's school trying to ban or discourage cycling? Here's a guide designed to help tackle the sort of barriers that keep cropping up. It's mainly for parents, but we hope it'll also be useful for teachers, heads, governors, councils, after-school programmes and, of course, children.

There is plenty of information available on how to promote cycling at schools that already have a positive outlook (you can learn more about this in the 'Working with the Willing' section below). This campaigning kit, however, is primarily to help people who are trying to change the attitudes of obstructive schools.

Cycling allows children to travel quickly and independently through their local areas, providing not just autonomy and a learning experience, but a daily sense of achievement. We hope that this kit helps you work with your child (or children) to make cycling a part of their everyday life. Although many of the suggested actions need to be led by adults, the issue remains essentially about children, so we strongly encourage anyone using this kit to work closely with the affected child(ren) at every step of the process.

The following pages set out some of the evidence and techniques that might come in useful when challenging bans imposed by schools.

See also Cycling UK's policy briefing on cycling to school.

Why cycle to school?

We believe all children should have the opportunity to cycle to school. It contributes to the NHS-recommended 60 minutes of moderate exercise for 5-18 year-olds each day, tackles weight problems and improves concentration in the classroom.

Cycling also gives children autonomy and the opportunity to learn how to explore and navigate their environment safely on their own – both of which are vital life skills. What's more, it's inexpensive, good for the environment, and can help cut down on the congestion caused by the 29% of trips between 8 and 9am in Great Britain caused by the school run.

The NHS says that to maintain a basic level of health, children and young people aged 5-18 need to do:

  • at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day – this should range from  moderate activity, such as cycling and playground activities, to vigorous activity, such as running and tennis
  • on three days a week, these activities should involve exercises for strong muscles, such as push-ups, and exercises for strong bones, such as jumping and running

There are so many reasons for children to cycle to school, yet currently only 1% of primary and 2% of secondary school children in Britain do so, as opposed to half of children in the Netherlands.

However, over half of UK children of primary age say they would rather cycle to school than be driven. On the other hand, there are also many reasons that schools and parents give for not allowing children to cycle. These are mostly grounded in fear – fear that children will not cycle safely, that drivers will drive dangerously, or that children alone in public are at risk. These fears simply do not reflect real experience, as discussed below:

  • Children can learn to ride safely through Bikeability. Based on the Government-backed national standard, Bikeability offers three levels of progressive training for real-world conditions, teaching children techniques to protect themselves, e.g. by looking and anticipating the movements of drivers and other road users. Children can also learn safe cycling by riding regularly with their parents or other skilled adult cyclists.
  • It’s true that cycling has more inherent dangers than staying indoors wrapped in cotton wool. However, the health benefits of cycling - in terms of greater cardiovascular fitness, reduced levels of some cancers and obesity - far outweigh the risk of being hurt in a traffic crash. 
  • For children, cycling is a particularly good way of doing two things at the same time: transporting themselves about and keeping fit. A study of 6,000 school pupils in eastern England showed that 10-16 year old boys who regularly cycled to school were 30% more likely to meet recommended fitness levels, while girls who cycled were seven times more likely to do so.
  • The media greatly exaggerate the risk presented by ‘stranger danger’. Since 1985 there has been no increase in the numbers of children killed by strangers. Allowing children to navigate their environments starting with short journeys – which is what many home-to-school trips are – helps prepare them well for further travel later in life.

The evidence clearly shows that cycling is a safe and healthy way to get to school. For more, read our policy briefings on health and on cycling to school

The law - what schools can and cannot do about cycling to school

  • Cycling ‘bans’

Schools do not have any legal right to ban cycling to and from their premises.

However, schools can discourage cycling through letters to parents or anti-cycling statements at assemblies and in policies and newsletters etc.. Schools can also ban bicycles from school grounds or refuse to supply cycle parking, which in many cases creates a de facto ban.

  • Liability

Some schools will make incorrect claims (either knowingly or out of ignorance) about their liability for students and/or their bicycles in order to justify a ban on cycles/cycle parking on school grounds.

However, schools are not liable for students travelling independently to or from the premises (school buses are a different matter). Equally, schools are not liable for theft or damage caused to bicycles on school grounds, just as schools are not liable for theft or damage to a student’s coat left in a cloakroom.

School Travel Plans & sustainable travel

School Travel Plans (STPs) look at the journeys that schools generate and how to make them more sustainable. They should be based on consultation with the whole school community and present clear targets, specific interventions and agreed monitoring criteria to shift journeys that are currently made by car to more environmentally-friendly means of travel – such as cycling.

In 1999 the Government issued guidance calling for all schools to complete an STP. A follow-up in 2003 made it clear that both schools and local authorities should promote sustainable transportation through STPs.

While schools do not have a legal duty to produce a travel plan, though, the Education and Inspections Act 2006 s.76 gives local education authorities (LEAs) in England a general duty to promote the use of sustainable travel and transport. STPs are an ideal way of fulfilling this duty.

STPs can be an important tool for encouraging your child’s school to listen to your concerns. They usually include a survey of pupils asking them not only how they currently travel to school, but also how they'd like to travel to school. Many children want to cycle, and this can provide motivation for the school to examine the issue. Many local authorities have school travel co-ordinators, who can prove useful champions for your cause.

Further reading:

Your local authority might also have its own guidance. Try searching for the name of your local authority plus + ‘school travel plan’ on the web.

How to convince your child’s school to allow cycling (part one)

  • Is there a problem? Does your child’s school discourage cycling in its prospectus and/or official announcements? Do they ban it outright? Do they ban cycles from school grounds? If your child is discouraged or not allowed to cycle to school, try to find out exactly what the problem is and – if possible – the reasons. You might find that writing to them and asking for a written answer is the only way of finding out for sure.
  • Discuss the situation with your child. What does your child want to do? Does he or she have any ideas about how to change things? Is your child worried about being an 'odd one out' if they cycle, or if you make a fuss about it? Find out what they want, how they feel about what you're doing, and involve them in any actions you take.
  • Get other families involved. Identify other parents at your child’s school who would like their children to be allowed to cycle there. Ask them to help you approach the school. The more families requesting a change in policy, the more difficult it becomes for the school to dismiss your request.
  • Be prepared to talk to parents who don’t support cycling to school. Listen, be respectful and try to address their concerns - but be ready to concede that there are some people who just aren’t interested in changing their minds. Don’t waste your energy on skirmishes that won’t help your cause.
  • Talk to the head teacher. You can begin the dialogue either in a face-to-face meeting or on the phone. It is possible that the school’s policy on cycling is out-dated or has not been well-considered. Politely ask the head teacher why the school has the policy it does. Try to find out who made the decision, when, and if there was a specific incident or reason that prompted it.Try to understand the head teacher’s position, and respond gently and sensitively to his or her concerns. Even if you think they are being silly or dismissive, do your best to maintain a dialogue – not a confrontation. Remember that this policy may not be the head teacher’s decision - they may even be an ally, underneath it all!

How to convince your child’s school to allow cycling (part two): what are the objections?

Whether or not you think the head teacher’s concerns make sense, they are real to him or her. You need to provide solutions. Some objections we have heard include:

  • Children lack safe cycling skills – suggest that all pupils at the school are offered Bikeability cycle training. Parents can also teach children safe cycling on the journey to school itself - for those who want to refresh their own skills, a course of adult cycle training might be in order. For children under the age of 10, or who have not had Bikeability level 2 (or in cases where schools are surrounded by very busy roads, level 3), cycling with them is a reassuring thing to do anyway. Parents are usually in a good position to know how advanced their children are and how much support they need.
  • No cycle parking/not enough space for cycle parking – ask the council to install parking (some cycle-commuting teachers may back you up on this request). Many local authorities have cycle parking budgets, and appreciate suggestions from the general public. Alternatively, cycle parking is surprisingly inexpensive and you can buy it direct from many manufacturers. Designs exist for small bicycles. For information on cycle parking best practice, see:
  • The school is concerned about its liability – schools simply are not liable for a child travelling independently to school or for a child’s property left on school grounds. See section 2 above.
  • The roads surrounding the school are too dangerous – this can be one of the most difficult objections to overcome. Due to years of car-oriented planning, unpleasant and high-speed roads are difficult to avoid in many areas. Your council may be able to help you decide the best approach to take by carrying out a risk assessment of the area for you. At least you’ll then have an official perspective on what the hazards may or may not be, and some ideas on what could be done about them – e.g. introducing a new crossing point or 20 mph limits.
    Remember also to think about measures that would help discourage people from driving their children to school, e.g. no-stopping zones around schools and reducing nearby car parking.
    Keep pushing the idea that more children cycling to school will mean fewer people driving, and that this will make the roads safer, as well as reducing school run congestion on roads in the school’s neighbourhood.
    Stress that you want the whole of the local community to benefit, not just you and the school!
  • The children will run over other children and/or neighbours and there will be chaos. This is very unlikely to happen. In any case cycles do far less damage than cars, so third parties are much more likely to benefit than otherwise.
    You can try recommending that all children at the school are offered cycle training, but be wary of moves to make it a compulsory prerequisite to cycling. Primary schools often only arrange instruction at the end of the last year, which means younger pupils are 'banned' from cycling unless their parents have organised training for them outside of school. If making training a prerequisite remains a sticking point, you might want to suggest that children who cycle must be registered with the school. This is not an ideal solution, however, as it gives the impression that cycling is somehow not an everyday activity and needs to be regulated.
  • The children don’t want to cycle to school. Around half of all children in the UK want to cycle to school. This is a figure that comes up over and over again in school travel surveys. In order to submit a School Travel Plan, each school has to measure how children currently travel to school, and how they wish they did travel. If your child’s school has not already collected this information, ask them to do so.

 How to convince your child’s school to allow cycling (part three) - next steps:

  • Present the solutions to the head teacher. Write to the head explaining that cycling is a healthy and relatively safe way for children to travel to school, and address any concerns the head teacher gave in your initial discussion. Suggest your solutions and a date by which you would like a response. Continue trying to discuss the issue with the head teacher, even if they do not respond positively to your letter. Make it clear that you don’t want to make a fuss, but that you will be forced to go down that route if the school’s cycling policy does not change.
  • Take the discussion to the Board of Governors. If the head teacher does not respond positively to your letter, try to attend a meeting of the Board of Governors. At the least, the AGM should be open to everyone and you should be able to submit a question for discussion beforehand. Ask for a written response, if possible. A good outcome would be for the Board to agree to delegate a steering group/committee to look into cycling (or cycling and walking) to the school and to report back. Ideally, you should be invited to sit on it. You may also find it useful to become a parent governor yourself, but you will need to stand for election first.
  • Involve the local authority. Since all local authorities are required to promote sustainable school travel (as part of School Travel Plan requirements), your local authority should be broadly supportive of your campaign. All local authorities are organised differently, but yours is likely to have teams or departments focused on sustainability, transport or road safety. Look in these teams for people who are particularly excited about your campaign. They don’t need to be the heads of those departments, but they must want you to succeed. If your local authority has a cycling officer or school travel plan officer, contact them. They should be able to help you navigate local bureaucracy and policies.
  • Use policy and the political system. Write to your MP and to local councillors, explaining your plight. Ask them to visit the school. Look up the school’s Travel Plan. It will be based on a survey, which you should be able to see. If you don’t like the questions on it, ask the school to issue a new survey. Your contacts within the local authority should be able to help you with this.
  • Complain to the school’s line manager. Many schools are managed by Local Education Authorities. They have very strict rules about how they get involved in disputes between parents and schools. You will need to do your research, and it is likely that you will have to present evidence that the school is failing to meet a mandated requirement, such as promoting sustainable school travel. Once again, your contacts within the local authority may be able to help with this. If your child attends a religious school, write to the local head of the church/institution.
  • Get the local media involved. This is really a tactic of last resort, as it will probably anger the head teacher and Board of Governors. But it is worth doing if other methods have not worked and, of course, if your child isn't troubled by the prospect. The local media tend to be quite interested in cycling to school stories!
  • Don’t give up hope! Overturning a school cycle ban can be a long and complicated process. Your child may not even be there long enough for you to see any changes - but it is worth trying. We have heard of several instances where one family has campaigned unsuccessfully, but managed to pave the way for another family to pick up where they left off - and win!

Working with the willing

Over the past decade, a number of effective interventions at individual schools have encouraged more children to cycle. These programmes can help you promote cycling once you have successfully overturned the school’s cycle ban, thus beginning the process of transforming an anti-cycling school into a pro-cycling school.

Finally, good luck from Cycling UK!

Draft letter to schools with anti-cycling policies

Below is a draft letter help you challenge anti cycling policies at your local school. Photo: Orin Zebest

Our draft letter will help you challenge anti-cycling policies such as cycle bans or obligatory helmet policies. 

Please note: because schools have implemented these policies on an ad hoc basis, you will need to edit and add to this outline to ensure it is as relevant as possible to your local area, the school in question, the school travel plan, and most importantly the details of the proposed policy.

In the pdf below the letter you will also find links to child health and physical activity statistics, which we recommend you use to emphasise the importance of cycling to your part of the UK or your local area.

Finally, make sure to discuss your letter with other parents first to try to get them on board - a letter sent by a group of parents (and pupils if appropriate) will be much more effective than a lone parent, especially considering that other parents may be supportive of the anti-cycling policy.

Download the draft letter

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