New cycling curriculum unlocks learning

This article was published in 2021, in Magazine 153.

Rosie Humphrey revisits the Castle School in Cambridge and discovers how placing cycling at the heart of the curriculum is allowing every pupil to enjoy the benefits of riding.

Two photos of pupils cycling at Castle SchoolCastle School in Cambridge is a special school for children aged three to nineteen. Last autumn, we announced that it had received £11,219 for a school cycling project from the Children’s Area Partnership Grant and local councils. The project aimed to provide adapted equipment for special needs pupils with mobility issues and to improve fitness and life skills for all 200 pupils.

Visiting the school a year later, certain things struck me as unusual. ‘Road’ markings decorated the playground, there was an enormous outdoor shed with a range of adapted bikes, and I was greeted by a staff member who was wearing a cycle helmet while teaching.

Speaking to Deputy Headteacher Anne Haberfield, it became clear that cycling was being used to underpin the school culture and much of their curriculum. ‘The aim is to give every child the opportunity to cycle as part of their school week,’ she explained. ‘Our work is enabling students with varied and complex needs to take part in a physical and sensory experience they might otherwise miss out on. They can participate in activities alongside their peers, siblings and parents, and integrate more with friends in the playground. They are learning travel skills and how to take risks safely, and this in turn is helping to improve their emotional and physical well-being.’

A child at Castle School learning to ride a tricycleRather than delivering the curriculum in a traditional way, the school has created a highly flexible teaching framework which allows for the teaching of Maths, English, Humanities and so on, but with a quarter of their curriculum time being given to the broad strand Physical. Rather than teaching Physical Education discretely, teachers are at liberty to use physical activities to teach other subjects. In this way, cycling is being used to help students achieve all kinds of curriculum targets: developing map-reading skills by working out safe cycling routes; using instructional language by following and giving cycling commands; focusing on turn-taking or making choices while learning about road safety.

Many of the Castle School students have significant physical needs. The school identifies three main strands of learners which each need a different style of bike. There are physically disabled pupils who need a bike which attaches to their wheelchair and is pedalled by an adult. There are pupils who aren’t able to be fully independent who use balance bikes, trikes or go-karts for a supported cycling experience, and there are independent learners who use bicycles and are working towards being road safe.

To achieve all this, the school has needed to continue raising funds. It also used its sports premium funding to invest in staff training to ensure that teachers and supporting staff are confident working with their pupil groups, integrating cycling into their practice and even taking pupils off-site to learn through cycling. This training is now being rolled out to more staff in-house. To date, the school has raised a total of £42,000 through the initial grant, its own fundraising and match funding from Places to Ride.

Unlocking independence – for the present and the future

Feedback from the school community has been good. Anne is enthusiastic about the benefits to their students: ‘Cycling unlocks so much for them,’ she says. ‘It’s a calming, purposeful activity which they enjoy. Whatever a child’s ability, each of them can engage and achieve in cycling activities in a way which feels quite free and gives them independence.’

Teachers have observed pupils really enjoying cycling as an activity and seen that their enjoyment enhances learning. Our flexible approach has given teachers freedom to tailor their practice to individual pupils’ needs

She also praised the staff team for embracing the shift in the way they work. ‘Teachers have observed pupils really enjoying cycling as an activity and seen that their enjoyment enhances learning across subjects. Our flexible approach to the curriculum has given teachers more freedom to tailor their practice to the individual needs of the pupils and it’s working well.’

Of course, donors have been hugely important to get the project off the ground. ‘We’ve been so well supported to make this project successful’, says Anne. ‘Acteon gave us a significant financial boost to buy the wheelchair bike, and we received help from Cardinalis Concrete, Travis Perkins, Mick George, and Sunbelt Rentals. We couldn’t be more grateful.’

A Castle School pupil learning cycle maintenanceIn the long term, the hope is that cycling and its related skills will mean that those who can will be able to cycle themselves safely to college, interviews and places of work. The school has begun to include bike maintenance as part of their work-experience offering for older pupils. Only a small proportion of Castle School students are likely to be able to drive in adulthood, so cycling opens up a world of independence and employment opportunities. In addition, they are looking to make it possible for some parents to take the wheelchair bike home for the weekend and enjoy a family cycle ride. The school is also keen for the equipment to benefit other groups, and the Headteacher is currently engaged in discussions with Sportsworld Limited – a group which provides extra-curricular clubs for school-aged pupils – to facilitate this.

The school officially launched the first part of its cycling project, Castle’s Got Wheels, on 20 October, and is planning an even bigger event for next May, including a ‘Castle to Castle’ fundraising ride from Framlingham Castle in Suffolk. Please contact Headteacher Chris Baker or Deputy Head Anne Haberfield (email if you’d like to know more about participating as a volunteer or donating to the school’s cycling projects.

Help children cycle at your school

  • Ensure there is adequate, secure cycle parking. Look out for grants from local councils to help with this.
  • Arrange Bikeability courses to help children gain the practical skills and understanding they need to cycle on roads. Contact your local highway authority to find out about funding in your area.
  • Take part in a national campaign such as Sustrans Big Pedal, Bike to School Week or Bike Week. These offer incentives to encourage children to work together and try cycling to school regularly.
  • Sign your school up to the national Modeshift STARS programme to help school families get more active and try walking, cycling, scooting or ‘park and stride’.
  • Create a School Street outside the school – temporary restrictions on motorised traffic at school drop-off and pick-up times create a safer, more pleasant environment for active travel. Find resources and inspiration to help you implement a School Street at